Back to School -- Time to Cherish Mistakes
It’s that time of year, and I’m feeling it from several perspectives -- as a parent, as a teacher, and as a developer chomping at the bit to test out some new ideas in real classrooms. Our only son is now a freshman at college. My wife and I have joined the ranks of empty-nesters, and my kid is enjoying a new found independence. I welcomed new students into the Technology, Innovation, and Education program at Harvard and started prepping for my first class on Friday. And we’ve been devising new programs at Tom Snyder Productions, testing out new ideas internally and getting ready to try them with actual middle school students and teachers. For me, a common theme running through these various perspectives is failure. I expect it, and I’m actually looking forward to it.
School is all too often associated with getting it right, but where’s the learning in that? We gain so much more from our mistakes. The original Deep Blue IBM chess computer that defeated chess champion Gary Kasporov was a monster machine. It had been programmed with all the possible moves for each situation on the chess board. Searching all those moves required incredible processing power, and technicians were nearby with fire extinguishers to handle the potential overload of the machine. Nowadays, software engineers build learning machines that don’t know all the answers ahead of time, as Deep Blue did. Instead, these new programs make mistakes, thousands of them every minute, and they learn from them. Researchers at IBM produced backgammon learning software that followed this approach, playing hundreds of thousands of simulated games to learn how to play. That program now plays at an expert level.
One nice thing about a computer playing games with itself is that the results are low stakes. Losing doesn’t matter. Learning does. Schools should be similar learning environments, a place where it’s safe to make mistakes…so long as we learn from them. So my message to my son and my students at the beginning of this new school year: take some chances, try out new ideas, and learn from the inevitable missteps. Getting everything right on the first try generally indicates a lack of challenge. Challenge leads to growth, and what better place to grow than a safe, supported place like school.