Lisa Birch

Nov 10, 2018

4 min read


One of the first things I remember being taught at uni was the idea that ‘learning’ isn’t an outcome. Learning is just a process. It can measured through assessment. Application of learning is what matters, not just being told something.

When people make mistakes though, we say things like ‘it wasn’t really a mistake if you learned something from it.’

This is a little BS, and I’ll explain why.

Take almost every sitcom you know of. Usually the main character is presented with a problem. Example: the main character is avoiding conflict. The solution: talk to the person in question, some misunderstandings had happened, and now everyone is happy. The moral: don’t be scared of confrontation.

But a sitcom needs to go on for a season, or 10, or more. This is why we never seen any true resolution. In Everybody Loves Raymond, does Ray apply the knolwedge he has gained from his latest fight with Debra? Nope. Does Marie ever stop being overbearing for longer than an episode? Nope. As oft quoted, there were two rules to writing a Seinfeld episode — no hugs, no learning. It was better because of it.

Assessing learning means that the educator measures if the students gained knowledge. But the art of having learned something is a little more complex than that, often we want to know if a student can put use that knowledge in context. That’s why exams, as stressful as they are, exist. That’s why we test rote learning, like multiplication arithmetic. This is why handwriting, a dying art, can’t just be displayed and modelled by the teacher, the student must complete the task themselves.

What the hell does that have to do with this?

Too often someone will find themselves in a less than ideal situation. Or they’ll be hurt for trusting someone they thought they could depend on. Or maybe their belief system, whether that be religious beliefs or just their worldview, is being challenged because of outside forces. And then, on hearing of their despair, a well meaning friend will say ‘well, you learned your lesson.’

Not true.

Learning your lesson means that you a) know the truth and b) when faced with the same situation, you make a different choice based on what you discovered last time.

There is the other camp though. They are the ones who say ‘I would do it all exactly the same, even though all these terrible things happened.’

I call kinda BS.

Life isn’t a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but…

A Choose Your Own Adventure book has about twelve endings. Yay! Everyone starts the book at the same place. You read on for a few more pages. Then you get a few more pages in and you have to make a choice.

Will you board the plane to Una WoopWoop? Turn to page 90.

Will you drive there instead? Turn to page 62.

The destination is still the same, and after a few pages of being on a plane, you’ll land in Una WoopWoop, and go on a great trek through the desert. And then same thing happens if you drive there. You still reach the destination. Just like at the start of the book, everyone reads the next section, a travel guide named Jack helps prepare you for a camel trek.

Do you trust Jack? If you do, turn to page 99.

If you don’t trust Jack, turn to page 45.

From this point on you may double up on a couple of pages. Trusting Jack may be totally irrelevant for the other eleven endings. But for the twelfth ending, trusting Jack ultimately led you down an empty mine shaft, and that’s the end of your story. It’s only that twelfth storyline that explains Jack’s gold madness, which leads you on a wild goose chase. All of the other Jacks in the timeline are good ones who sing songs with you around a campfire.

If you had your time again, and you knew Jack was leading you down the long road to ruin, you would turn to page 45. You would throw all politeness and common courtesy out the window not to be deceived by this gold prospector.

Would you do it all the same? No. No you wouldn’t. The thing is, those eleven endings were all happy ones. When the book lets you choose which way to go, all eleven endings get you to the end safely. You don’t have to do things exactly the same, if you had your time over again.

(and you don’t have your time over again, unless you’re reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book, which you can buy at Big W these days).

Dumbledore reassures a young Harry Potter with this phrase: ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities’. Are we all able to ‘learn’ something? Yes. But the choices we make following a bad decision is where the true mastery lies.