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Freedom to Fail: Discovering the Learning Zone

It’s hard to ignore how many students are finally catching on to the power of generative AI. Towards the end of 2023, I found my teacher's inbox full of assessments ‘supposedly’ written by students. With Term 4 examinations fast approaching and as the pressure ramped up for students to submit their final internal assessments they were truly embodying the adage of “work smarter, not harder.” Under the pump, time-pressured and willing to do anything to achieve, students are turning to the power of generative AI for support. However, the problem lies not with the technology available to students but with the conditions we’ve created for using it. 

The problem is that we’ve replaced the joy of learning with a focus on high-stakes assessment. Whether comparative or not, students feel the pressure to compete for top grades, pitting themselves against their classmates. External examinations have a place in the summative world and decision-making about university entrance but they quickly kill learning. This is because they are focused on performance. High-stakes external examinations are not formative but rather are about showing what you’ve already learnt. 

Understanding the need to balance performance and learning is explored by Eduardo Briceno in his work The Performance Paradox. Briceno observes that when institutions focus solely on performance metrics, they might achieve short-term growth but at the cost of stifling long-term growth and future innovation. 

Briceno posits that there are two zones - the learning zone and the performance zone. In the learning zone, individuals are given the permission to make mistakes and experiment free from judgment. Whereas, in the performance zone, individuals are given the opportunity to apply what they’ve learnt, executing tasks to the highest level possible. 

Understanding the difference between the performance and learning zone underscores the argument between critics and proponents of AI. What critics of generative AI fail to understand is that not all learning is summative, concerned more about the impact generative AI will have on performance and assessment than on learning. However, proponents of the use of emergent technologies focus less on how it will jeopardize the nature of performance, asking instead how it will enhance learning. Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, Danny Liu encourages educators to explore the limitations of generative AI with students and its benefit in undertaking initial research or overcoming writer's block. There is no doubt that AI is a powerful learning tool which both provides opportunities and raises concerns for how we assess but if we are going to get to the root of the problem, we need to be asking what’s driving assessment. 

Most secondary schools in New Zealand compete for enrolments, so the metrics matter. At the end of the year, the pendulum tends to swing away from learning towards performance as senior leaders encourage teachers to ‘get kids over the line’. This is a distraction. Comparative and competitive metrics mean we spend more time prioritizing performance over learning. When we do this, students aren’t given the freedom to fail - to discover the learning zone. 

So how do we create a culture that balances performance and learning? 

I was recently asked by a principal how we might balance the expectations of parents to produce good results while maintaining our pedagogical integrity - offering authentic teaching and learning experiences. Firstly, I think this is a false dichotomy. Authentic learning experiences produce results. In his latest book, Hidden Potential, organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues that the more opportunities young people have to make mistakes leads to better performance. We under-prioritize opportunities for students to make mistakes because we fear perception. Students don’t want to be seen failing in front of their peers and educators fear the perception that other teachers or school administrators will judge them if their students aren’t performing all the time. 

The truth is making more mistakes allows both educators and their students to get smarter, gain courage, laugh at themself and expand their comfort zone. We need to rid ourselves of the impression that somehow time invested in the learning zone will detract from performance. In reality, it is the opposite. Time spent in the learning zone ultimately leads to better performance outcomes.

We do this by creating a climate. Amy Edmondson, professor at the Harvard Business School argues that we need to create a culture of psychological safety. A culture where there is a deep belief that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes will not result in punishment and humiliation. We create this culture by modelling to our students. We need to admit to mistakes and allow our young people to make mistakes. Creating a psychologically safe space where students are given the opportunity to share ideas, even when unconventional or unpopular, allows for the giving and receiving of feedback. When we create spaces where people are free to make mistakes, share ideas openly and feedback is given and received, what follows is performance and more importantly growth.

Ultimately, this can be transformative. When students and staff aren’t spending energy on self-preservation or guarding themselves from criticism, their energy can be directed towards learning. As Edmondson puts it “teams that feel psychologically safe are better positioned to be innovative”. 

Ironically, competitive assessment isn’t just measuring performance, it’s hindering it. If we want students to perform better, we first need them to learn better and that begins with allowing them the freedom to fail and discover the learning zone. 

Reference List

Briceño, E. (2023). Performance paradox: Turning the power of mindset into action. Random House Publishing Group. 

Grant, A. (2023). Hidden potential: The science of achieving greater things. Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. 

Edmondson, A. (2020). Psychological safety: Clear blocks to innovation, collaboration, and risk-taking. LinkedIn. 


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