When do we stop learning from Beneficial Accidents? Tales from the Coal Dust Cresta Run.

The ‘Black Run’ on the Coal Dust Cresta (my pic. Llanbradach Colliery Tips)

The answer is… When we build our first Trojan Horse. I’ll explain why in a minute, but first a “lovely ramble down to an important point…”

The Coal Dust Cresta Run. When I was growing up one my favourite playgrounds was the old quarry at the top of the street. It had been partially filled with colliery spoil. We used to spend hours sliding down the spoil tips on pieces of corrugated metal sheeting, ‘salvaged’ from a derelict garage. The search for the ‘perfect sledge’ – a Morris Minor car bonnet – occupied a disproportional amount of my childhood. It was a sort of ‘Coal Dust Cresta Run’. How nobody from our Village made it into an Olympic Bobsleigh Team is still a mystery to me.

It was a dirty and dangerous playtime, where we experienced a fair bit of risk and danger, but we weren’t stupid! You learnt how to; take the nails out of the metal sheeting with a stone, bail out before the barbed wire fence, in addition to the physics of banking at high speed (with a mouth full of coal dust). What it also taught us to do was, never go to the ‘official playground’ that was located in the Miners Welfare Park, at the other end of the Village. Centerpiece of the playground was a terrifyingly high ‘Wickham’ metal slide with missing guard rails, and a landing on a bed of broken glass, scattered liberally on concrete (I’m not joking). We knew our limitations and learning from ‘beneficial accidents’ on the Coal Dust Cresta Run meant you NEVER went down the slide at the Welfare…

Learning from Beneficial Accidents. The idea of a ‘beneficial accident’ feels like something fairly straightforward to get your head around. An accident that doesn’t cause ‘too much’ harm, but allows those involved to gain something useful or positive from it. You learn from the failure (accident).

I was introduced to the concept a while ago by someone who worked in education and was an expert in learning from play. Foolishly I’ve lost touch with them. Since then I’ve replaced my quest for the perfect Morris Minor car bonnet with a quest to find some definitive guidance on the design of play facilities. Something that talks explicitly about beneficial accidents. I’m still searching…

The best I’ve managed is this 2012 document from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Children’s Play and Leisure – Promoting a Balanced Approach. The guidance has some tantalizing ‘Key Messages’:

  • ‘Play is great for children’s well-being and development. When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool’
  • ‘Those providing play opportunities should focus on controlling the real risks, while securing or increasing the benefits – not on the paperwork’.
  • ‘Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion.’

So, if I’m interpreting the HSE guidance correctly. Accidents will happen, and they are good opportunity to learn and develop. In other words, we learn from failure. I have commented on this previously in connection with the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, ‘that which does not kill us, makes us stronger’.

There’s a surprising amount of material published on the importance of ‘play’ as a source of learning. If you want something that’s going to stretch your grey cells have a look at what Complex Wales has to say in this post, ‘Representation, Go Forth’, neatly summarised with “Metaphors are our greatest tool for play, and play our greatest method for learning.”

If you fancy less of a stretch, there’s always the inevitable Einstein quote; “Play is the highest form of research”. Apparently it is a (close) misquote, details here on Quote Investigator, but it’s too good to ignore.

So, when does the learning stop? This is a bit of a contentious subject. When do we ‘stop’ playing and stop learning from beneficial accidents. A friend who has got experience of teaching said that it diminishes in the final years of primary school, and by the time kids arrive in secondary school its pretty much stopped.

The challenge is neatly summarise by Prof Leo Buscagila, “It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them”.

What I would say is that by the time we enter the world of work the idea of learning from play is definitely extinct. Along with this I would argue that the opportunity to learn from failure is also diminished. I’d also go as far as saying that you’ll know you’ve crossed the threshold and have left the idea of learning from failure well behind when you build your first Trojan Horse. Let me explain…

Trojan Horses. I’m using the concept of Trojan Horses as a metaphor for the 100% guaranteed successful project proposal. The ‘recommended option’ that we put forward to the Business Case Approvals Committee. Many of us will have been there…

The Trojan Horse is the proposal that you desperately want the Committee to approve. To get it across the finish line you will pretty much be promising heaven and earth and everything in between. There will be no suggestion of failure, no unmanageable risk and no chance of it not delivering.

A while back I suggested 5 questions (here) you could use to spot Trojan Horses, and more recently something on how to spot people using the Decoy Effect in business case options appraisals (here). Trojan Horses and the Decoy Effect come from the same ‘stable’ in my view. The point to remember is that they both reduce the opportunity to learn from failure. The promise of guaranteed success and emotional attachment to a ‘favourite’ option mean that anything less than success is a failure and is unlikely to be welcomed or recognised for it’s learning opportunity.

Say Hello to Trojan Mice. I’d hate to finish this on a negative, so here’s some hope. The concept of Trojan Mice. Small, Safe to Fail ‘probes’ that allow you to test what might be possible. The idea is that you welcome failure as a learning opportunity and you make it ‘cheap’ and (relatively) painless. I’ve explained it in more detail in this blog post, Trojan Mice in 900 Seconds, and the graphic below.

Back to the Coal Dust Cresta Run. Back on the spoil tip, Trojan Mice would have been the multiple ‘test runs’ we carried out. These involved a variety of different ‘sledges’, in different locations, in different weather conditions and with different ‘test pilots’. We were working things out before we launched the BIG ONE. It was learning from failure, through play, with beneficial accidents thrown in for free.

When did I loose that part of my life..?

So, Whats the PONT?

  1. Play, failure, learning and therefore doing something different or better are inextricably linked. It doesn’t make sense to keep them separate.
  2. Proposals that guarantee success will have a bias against learning from failure in my view. If we are not expecting it to happen, it’s unlikely we will recognise or welcome it.
  3. If you don’t ‘see’ the failures, you certainly aren’t going to feel the benefits of the learning that comes from them.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

3 Responses

  1. Another brilliant ramble down to a lovely point and I’ll take that poke – suggesting that understanding Einstein is easier than trying the same with me – as a compliment. In terms of learning from failure, the driving force behind all those prebonnet experiments is Creativity. Everyone is creative, but it can be battered or of you, I thought to myself. Then I lost several hours as you, it’s your fault, sent me off reminiscing on YouTube with the Lovely Sir Ken Robinson, now sadly departed. His talk on education’s death valley should probably be in this post somewhere, as could the famous RSA animation of his classic talk. It broke all the records on TED and I think he would have loved, to have been sat on that bonnet behind you: https://youtu.be/iG9CE55wbtY

  2. I really enjoyed this post! Your description of the coal dust Cresta run puts me in mind of a Wellcome Collection exhibition I saw in 2019 called, Play Well. Here’s a link to the exhibition page https://wellcomecollection.org/exhibitions/XSg-7xEAACcAGVXc and also a link to a good article in the Guardian which references the exhibition https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/oct/31/were-cosseting-our-kids-the-war-against-todays-dangerously-dull-playgrounds-wellcome – hopefully they may be useful in your quest to find definitive guidance on the design of play facilities?

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