Recently I went to the movies with my family to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Though I didn’t dress up in a Star Wars costume, I’ve always enjoyed Star Wars and Yoda’s wisdom. During the movie, Yoda has a pivotal conversation with Luke Skywalker, which struck my Instructional Design conscience like a blast from the Death Star. Yoda and Luke spoke about training Rey, and Luke questioned his ability to train any Jedi. He felt he had failed in the past, and had nothing to offer that would be beneficial. Yoda listed all the ways Luke could train Rey, but the greatest piece of wisdom he gave was, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”
When studying and learning the craft of Instructional Design, one begins with learning theories. The three major schools of learning theories are Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism. Psychologist Jean Piaget focused on Constructivism. He felt when a learner approached a new experience or new information they either add and assimilate it to their existing framework, or if it contradicts what they thought they already knew, they accommodate their previous frame of thought to learn new information. Simply put, accommodation means learning from failure.
As I look over our industry of Learning and Delivery, I realized we don’t value failure in learning. Many think failure, on the part of the student, means failure as a trainer. We have the Luke Skywalker trainer complex inside of us, where, if we teach information and the learner doesn’t get it right, we feel it is a direct reflection on our ability to teach. In spite of hundreds of articles on how failure is one of our greatest teachers, we’re still learning this lesson. In fact, our job in training is to provide a safe environment where learners can fail. When we provide a safe place for failure, they learn two things. First, failure is not the end of the world. Learners must have a forum to learn how to “un-do” failures without damage in real world contexts. Second, failures under the watchful eye of a trainer enable the learner to go back and perform the action or behavior correctly. When training is over, and they sit at their desk, or are in a meeting, they are better prepared to handle failure and know how to achieve success.
I have often failed as a software instruction because I have not allowed the learner to fail. Too often, the learner comes to my class where I would tell them exactly where to click, step by step, in order to gain success in an exercise. Upon completion, they walk away thinking “That was a piece of cake. I clicked where she said, and the software worked error-free!” The problem is that day-to-day work is not so clean cut, with a perfect scenario where all the information aligns in the proper order and time. In fact, rarely do any of our projects fall into place neatly. The software user is left guessing as to how to complete the more complicated task, and receive pop-up windows, errors, etc. Essentially, not training on failure increases the burden on the Help Desk, which in turn increases cost because time is money. We cannot afford not to use failure as a key training method. I can hear Yoda say “Let them fail, you must! Then learn, they will.”
Now that we know we must allow users to fail, how do we implement that course of action? Think back to those books you used to read where you could pick an ending. If you picked the wrong direction at the end of the chapter, the book was essentially over. Then what did you do? Throw the book away? Most go back and pick another chapter to see where that would take them. That’s the nature of that type of book. That is exactly what we can do with instructional Design. For example, with software training provide some basic instruction, then allow the learner to explore the menus and functions. In an exercise, let them click, enter wrong information in the training environment and get error messages. For soft skills training such as sales, introduce various skills involved and let the learner try different tactics through role-playing. Allow them to experience how their techniques impact their ability to close the sale, as well as the impact on other departments. If someone missteps, they can share with the group what they did, what happened and allow the group to share solutions or propose other methods. Guide the learners through the learning process. The pay-off is that the learners retain the information because they had to engage and be the activator in the learning process, rather than just a bystander. When a learner completes a training with the ability to handle what they have be hired to do, they are able to complete the tasks assigned, as well as problem-solve through new challenges they are faced. Also, when the learner becomes a confident user or associate, they are more enthusiastic toward their work and this enthusiasm translates to a better work performance, which translates to a better return on investment for the company.
Experiencing failure is a certainty in our careers, in our homes and in life. Learning how to get back up after failing, and get back on the right path is a critical skill for any age, generation and situation. In The Empire Strikes back, Luke thought Yoda was training him to face Darth Vader. What Luke really gained were skills far greater than just that one battle. What trainers end up providing in allowing learners to fail, may be greater than just skills for a single task. Instead, learners obtain life skills that can be applied to any task. As Yoda said, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” May the force be with you!