Failure is a Step Toward Understanding, '5 Elements' Author Advises New College

Teachers usually want to see students succeed, but renowned educator Edward Burger advised a New College crowd just the opposite: Failure is good for you.
Burger is president of Southwestern University, a former mathematics professor at William College, and winner of the Cherry Award, one of the world’s most prestigious honors for teaching.
He also is the co-author of this year’s Common Read selection for first-year students, “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.” He spoke to a small midterms-week audience in the Sudakoff Conference Center on Oct. 8.
His core message is that we must change we way we think and look at life in order to be receptive to new knowledge.
“The whole point of formal education is to get you ready for the education that comes after the fact, when you have had your last professor – and now you’re on your own and you still want to learn,” Berger said.
He also preaches the concept that there can be value in failing, telling the audience he grades his students over the course of a semester, in part, on the “effectiveness of their failure.”
“There is no greater teacher than one’s own mistake,” he said, adding students must even be encouraged to sometimes fail intentionally. “That’s where new ideas can be uncovered.”
And that leads to a deeper understanding of any subject, Burger said.
“Understanding is not a binary proposition. It’s not ‘yes” or “no”. That’s not reality. Understanding is a spectrum. There are shades of gray. And that’s something you have to embrace.
“And the realization that wherever you are in your own understanding, you can, with intentionality, understand a little deeper.”
Embracing effective thinking, Burger says, will open new possibilities. “If you practice these things as habits of how your mind operates, you will just be a more creative, more imaginative individual.”
“The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking,” by Burger and fellow mathematician Michael Starbird, is published by Princeton University Press.

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