Monday, January 14, 2013

Falling down

1. A Day at the Ice Rink

Yesterday, we went ice skating, because apparently that's what people do here in the wint'ry North. Sebastian was essentially carried by an adult while he did a high-speed version of a Chandler wobble (which is a real thing.) Barbara fell a little. Maria and I did not fall. A good time was had by all, and this picture serves as a pretty accurate look at how most of the day went:

Let's focus on Barbara's skating experience. She skated for about an hour total.

For the first thirty minutes, Barbara did not fall once. She stayed on the wall, inching her way along, occasionally venturing out a few feet from the wall for a few seconds.

Once she gained enough confidence, she started to spend more and more time away from the wall. She started skating a little faster. And she started falling.

I will argue here that this is exactly the right way to go about learning to skate. And it's precisely why the learning curve is so steep at the beginning of learning to do anything. How can we apply this same principle in the later stages of our development? Simply put, we can accept the first rule of bicycle riding: Riders fall. If you're not falling, you're not really getting better, at least not as quickly as you could be.

2. Put Your Shoulders Down

In Practice Perfect, Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Kate Yezzi describe a skier who realized that she had hit a plateau by not pushing herself to fall. This excerpt from their article says it all:
We know a woman who is a breathtaking skier. She tells an interesting story about her breakthrough moment--and it was just that, a moment--when she started down the road of becoming an expert. It happened on the day she decided to fall. She was getting on the lift at the base of a steep, sunlit ski bowl. She had just come down a twisted, mogul-ridden trail in top form, earning the admiration of a teenager who'd been trailing behind her. At the bottom, amidst words like "stoked" and "killer," the teenager asked, "Do you ever fall?" 
Getting on the lift, she realized that (1) the answer was no, and that (2) if the teenager had been a nephew or a cousin whom she felt invested in developing as a skier, she wouldn't have wanted to admit that to him. Instead she would have pointed out that if you never fall, you aren't pushing yourself and you aren't improving as fast as you could be. Midway up the mountain she realized that she hardly ever fell, perhaps once every eight or ten days on skis, and even then it was usually at tangled moments when she wasn't actually skiing that hard. She realized that if she wasn't falling she probably wasn't pushing herself to learn as hard as she could be. She had gotten lazy because she was so good. 
When she got to the top of the mountain and skied off the chairlift, she knew what she needed to do. She set out to ski hard enough to fall, but she was intentional about how. She knew that there was one thing that she had been working on: pointing her shoulders face down the mountain, no matter how steep. She then set out to execute this skill even if that meant falling. She fell three times that first day. "I could feel myself trying to do exactly the things I was afraid of. I knew if I stuck with it I would conquer my fears." She began skiing without fearing falling. Within a few weeks she was a different skier entirely.

This is powerful for any of us who want to get better at something, and is a great reminder that failure is the only way to know we're pushing ourselves hard enough.

3. Thin Value Bets

There was a time when I played a lot of poker. It's OK, Mom: Nate Silver played a lot, too. In poker, let's say you have a good, but not a great hand, and all of the cards have been dealt. Conventional poker wisdom says that, if you are the last to make a decision, and it has been checked to you, you check behind, because your opponent will always call your bet with a better hand (meaning you threw away money unnecessarily), will sometimes call your bet with a worse hand, and will sometimes fold to your bet with a worse hand. The latter case has no effect, so we'll remove it from the equation. The mathematics of this situation basically ask you to calculate how much money you will make with this bet (referred to as a thin value bet) vs. how much money you will lose when you are called by a better hand.

Most poker players do not make these thin value bets, just like most decent poker players do not try to bluff their opponents excessively. both of these plays are very risky and can potentially cause one to lose a lot of money. But the best players play the game very differently. They are notorious for making more value bets than anybody else, for bluffing in a wider variety of situations, and for being less predictable in general.

All of this comes about because they are not afraid to fail. They are more afraid of leaving value on the table, missing out on what could potentially be an increase in profit over the long run. In short, these world-class players become world-class precisely by preferring to find the limits of their abilities, rather than accepting them.

4. Testing the Ice
(in which this post comes full circle, right back to ice.)

My favorite story to tell students has the same message, but is phrased as a cautionary tale: The only way to know how far you can take something is by taking it too far. In other words, you only know where the line is once you've crossed it.

I was about 10 years old, and my job was to pick up dog poop in our back yard, put it into a plastic bag, and throw it away. We had a pool in the yard, and it had developed thicker ice than I'd ever seen, so naturally I was curious as to how much weight it could hold. I threw a ball onto the ice, and it bounced. I put a little of my own weight, and it still held. Little by little, I put more and more of my weight on it, with the idea that maybe - just maybe - I could walk on the ice. I continued to put weight onto the ice until, in an instant, I fell through, bounced off of the bottom of the pool, and somehow found myself inside. Our cousins were visiting, and everybody else had just taken hot showers, so there was not hot water. I remember my mom heating water over the stove and taking it to the bath so I could warm up. Thank you, Mom :)

I still wonder what happened to that dog poop...

So I learned this important lesson, but it wasn't until recently that I could make sense of the positive corollary, described above. We have to push our limits not only to see what we're capable of, but to ensure that we are pushing ourselves to expand these limits.

Happy falling, everybody.


  1. I can understand how this applies to students - it ties in with the idea of conceptual change, as well as giving children enough "at bats" to fail in order to eventually succeed. However, does the same apply to educators? Are we allowed to employ trial and error techniques to find what works best, even if it comes at the expense of our students' educations?

    Then again, everything I do is trial and error, so this comment is almost irrelevant.

  2. Unknown, your comment has inspired my latest post! Keep the good questions coming!