The Practice Effect - Releasing Early and Often

Education is mostly an open source business. Children spend their time in and out of classrooms exploring the culture and knowledge of our world. That culture and knowlege is a heritage passed along by parents and educators. Children are encouraged to manipulate the material with comments like, "Practice makes perfect." Of course, the children frequently mangle the stuff they learn. Patient educators and parents adjust the experience for a child and encourage more practice. Over time, support makes children persist until they achieve a level of mastery and move on to the next challenge.

image: hands up
[UNICEF Canada on Flickr]

Chaos is inherent in learning. Very few elements of learning are accomplished by a single effort. "Failures" occur on a daily, hourly or even moment-by-moment basis. The business of education is managing the chaos, the setbacks, the productive failures. That's right "productive failures." Instant success isn't normal. Iterative effort supports incremental improvements. Steady improvements lead to confidence and success. Children deserve to have steady support for their explorations, their chaos, their mangling of the current topic. Children need to understand failure the way that open source developers are encouraged to see their own failures. "Release early and often" is a major open source software mantra. Let the process be as transparent as possible. Submit trial code for others to examine and put through the stress tests of use. Oh, and users, please send back bug reports. Children learn the same way. They submit homework, written assignments, drawings, reports, all the elements of a product. They get evaluation, and theyneed, next, to be encouraged to push ahead to the next evaluation. Learning isn't a singular accomplishment, it is a series of chaotic early-and-often releases. "Yes, that's great. See if it can be made better. Would it work better if..."

Parents and educators must avoid inserting blockers. "What, you got a C- on the test? That's unacceptable!"

Dropping that kind of blocker on a regular basis does NOT encourage children to enjoy the work. Instead, they do what it takes to avoid the "failure." That avoidance may include working to get a C+ if that means a parent or educator will then say, "At least it's not C-." Low grade avoidance is not the same as "release early and often." Avoidance of low evaluations is avoidance of "failure." Avoidance of "failure" frequently also leads to avoiding challenge. Instead of taking the chance to learn calculus, sign up for the consumer math class during high school senior year, for example. The enthusiasm for making improvements is missing. Getting by, avoiding failure, escaping from the hard work, that's the new goal.

image: students at work
[Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory on Flickr]

Parents and educators have the difficult job of managing chaos. Parents and educators need to carefully tread the path of effective evaluation, effectively encouraging children to keep moving ahead. Children, adolescents, young adults (even adults) need support to encourage them to take the next challenge, one which they can "fail" to finish in version 0.01, ver. 0.3.2, and possibly even version 0.99. Parents and educators cannot be expecting efficiency and productivity from their children. Those are terms of the conservative adult world. Learning is chaotic and messy, not often efficient. Productivity is a term of late-stage business activity. It happens when the job is well understood, probably even repetitive. Now that a worker knows how to make a widget, let's see how much faster it can be done.

Think carefully, adults. Is rote repetition of a well understood skill your actual goal for the education for your children?

Work hard parents. Work hard teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, legislatures, federal education officials. Keep your focus carefully on educational realities, the chaotic, failure rich, iterative process of releasing early and often and the excitement and joy of getting to the next challenge.

The Practice Effect - An article which inspired this one.