Sal Khan on the Learning Myth and Why I Celebrate Failure

Written by CUE CEO Mike Lawrence @techmaverick

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Photo Credit Howard Bingham

I’ve never liked the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but I always thought it was because it compared someone to a dog or worse, called them ‘old!’ As it turns out, what has really bothered me about the phrase is that I disagree with it on a deeper philosophical level. As a professional developer and lifelong learner, it flies in the face of all that I do professionally.

Educators at all points in their career CAN and DO learn new ‘tricks,’ can think innovatively, can change teaching practice and adapt to new challenges. But I’ve struggled because not all of them DO. I think this is why Sal Khan’s recent post on “The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart” (Aug. 19, Huffington Post) resonated with me so strongly.

CUE’s mission is to inspire innovative learners, and if you believe your ability to learn is set at birth, this mission is hard, if not impossible, to achieve.

“Researchers have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle; that the more you use it, the more it grows. They’ve found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones.” -Khan

When CUE is invited to support schools and districts through our professional learning offerings, we find that the biggest challenge we have is not the step-by-step training on technology, or the physical logistics of coordinating professional development, but addressing this ‘fixed mindset’ many educators’ bring to their own learning. There are many that believe they are incapable of learning new practices and shut down when presented with something they don’t understand. They fear failure more than stagnation, and it’s paralyzing for them.

Clearly, those who attend our conference events in Napa Valley, Palm Springs and around the world with Google Teacher Academies, Rock Star Teacher Camps and CoffeeCUE events are not like this. They embody the growth mindset. They come thirsty for learning, willing to share and seeking connections. Their brains are switched to ‘ON’ for the duration of the events, and stay on through the sharing that continues for months following these gatherings. It’s exciting to witness the learning through #cuerockstar #fallcue, #CoffeeCUE and the other hashtags as it extends beyond the limitations of time and space.

“…the best way that we can grow our intelligence is to embrace tasks where we might struggle and fail.”-Khan

There’s a group of educators to which I belong that have a strong collectively-held belief in failure as a learning environment. They celebrate AND LEARN FROM the mistakes they and others make as a celebration of learning. It’s almost a tribal experience when one of us makes a public mistake – we actively cheer them in that moment. Some of you reading this are a part of this group of distinguished educators, and others have experienced this through improvisational or other performance training. Hopefully, you have established a culture like this on your campuses to support student (and adult) learning in a proactive, nurturing environment. It seems like our CUE 2014 closing keynote has instilled just such an environment within the Khan Academy, and I’m glad he’s sharing it with the world.

We reached out to Sal Khan to ask permission to repost his original piece, and he graciously agreed. You can read the original post at KhanAcademy.org and on the Huffington Post. And for more, take a look at the recording of the CUE 2015 “Khanversation” from last March.


M.Lawrence2014Mike Lawrence’s title was recently changed to Chief Executive Officer. An educator for the last 20 years, he worked as a teacher, administrator and professional developer prior to starting at CUE in 2005. He received the CUE Gold Disk in 2010, and recently served two terms on the ISTE Board of Directors. He is the Director of the California Student Media Festival, was named one of NSBA’s “20 to Watch in Educational Technology” in 2012, and received ISTE’s Making IT Happen Award in 2013. 


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Mike Lawrence

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