By Jen Vetter

I love learning. I love watching others learn even more. I especially love when those learners are five years old or younger.

No, I don’t teach five-year-olds about sales or policies and procedures. In my spare time, I coach a Learn to Play Hockey program at the local ice rink, and my learners are…well, you guessed it: five years old.

There’s something incredible about watching a child learn, especially when it’s a physical skill you can see. When a young player (let’s be honest, or an older player) is learning how to skate, there’s a lot of falling. A lot. Imagine: you step out onto a cold, glistening sheet of ice in boots with steel blades, along with equipment covering your body (it weighs as much as you do)… and then you fall. Most of the time, there are a lot of tears involved.

But the beautiful part is that you get back up. And that time that you spent on your backside? It’s already in the past, because now you know that leaning backwards in your skates is never a good idea. So, you keep moving. Fall, learn, get up…Fall, learn, get up… Before you know it, you’re zooming around on the ice. And each time someone falls, or collides with another player, everyone involved learns something from the mistake.

I find it a little strange that this method of learning seems to fade as we get older. As adults, we see this in exams or evaluations where you have one shot to show what you can do. We are expected to learn at a moment’s notice, with little or no ability to “fall” and then learn from the choices we made. But isn’t this exactly how we discovered so much at such a young age? I remember hearing so many adages growing up that reinforced this idea (these sayings normally involved falling off horses or bicycles). What changed?

My favorite type of course to build or take is one that gives the learner an opportunity to fail first. What’s the harm? As trainers, it’s our job to create a safe environment where our learners feel comfortable to jump in feet first. In my mind, it’s what learning is all about. Otherwise, how would we ever know what the consequence of a bad decision is? At my work, we’ve implemented this idea in elearning courses just by using quiz feedback that is focused on the why, and not necessarily the right or wrong answer. It’s okay if the learner gets the question wrong.

As a trainer, you can give your learners the power to take their education into their own hands, and learn from their mistakes. Learners can receive so much more than just instruction. This way, they have the opportunity to achieve and discover more than they ever would if they were never allowed to fall off the horse…or the bike…or the skates…

(This short piece was written by our own Jen Vetter for a book being distributed at Elliott Masie’s Learning 2010 conference. Jen was selected for the 30 Under 30 group for the event and was asked to submit her own learning reflection.)