On learning through failure

Have you ever thought about the process of learning and how we master things that we initially are unable to do? Any parent will remember the amusing things their children said when learning to talk. Our son, for example went through a period of saying ‘firstabor’ when he wanted to say ‘first of all’. He heard people saying it, grasped the context it was used in and had a shot at saying it himself. No doubt after he had said it a few times one of us taught him to say the words properly and he never went back. Imagine if in his childish way he had said to himself ‘I’m not going to try saying that funny long word because I’ll get it wrong and they’ll think I’m stupid’. That way he would never have learnt to talk fluently.

Try applying what I have just written to yourself at a ringing practice. Have you ever avoided trying something new because you didn’t want to embarrass yourself? Or been reluctant to ask someone to go over something once more just for your benefit? Or felt apprehensive ringing in a strange tower with people you don’t normally ring with? I certainly have and I’ll bet that if you are honest you have too, even if for you accomplished people it wasn’t recently. These comments are aimed principally at those of us who are still very much in the learning process, but I spoke a while ago to someone who had recently started ringing at St. Peter Mancroft and I realised that for her that experience must have been just as intimidating as the things we less accomplished ringers attempt.

Think about how you learn to do something new. You might read about it in a book or have someone explain it to you and then just do it perfectly. If so, then well done you. But what about bell ringing? The process of learning invariably involves getting it wrong, possibly repeatedly, and gradually working out how to do it right. Once you tick that little problem off another one comes along, and so on. The vital point is that we are learning through our mistakes, learning through failing. So if we allow ourselves to become afraid of failure to the extent that we avoid anything that might make us look (in our eyes) foolish or incompetent, how is that helping us to learn? The simple answer is that it isn’t, in fact it’s probably the single biggest thing holding us back.

I have been struggling with this for a while. I am trying, as time permits, to go to practices at towers where there are ringers who are well above my standard, as I feel that this is my best chance of making progress. But I am nervous of doing so, even to the extent of chickening out, which is clearly not helping me. Recently I have tried to think about this differently. I say to myself ‘I’m going to go to the practice at ‘x’, I hope to try new and difficult things, I’m going to muck it up, and eventually I’ll learn how to do it right’. In other words I’m going to the practice fully intending to get egg on my face, if you want to think of it like that, but I’m also going to use that experience to learn.

So my moral is that on practice nights we need to be game for (almost!) anything, happy to fail, and thoughtful about how to learn from our mistakes. We also need constantly to remind ourselves that when we do fail, most experienced ringers will respect us for trying and encourage us to have another go, which is precisely what we must do.