Learning and consequence

My favourite definition of training comes from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game: “The essence of training is to allow error without consequence.” But recently, I’ve come to realise that to train does not mean to learn. Learning requires a definite consequence, be it positive or negative, mild or extreme.

Consider the training of civilian pilots. Technology has allowed us to create near-realistic simulators. Trainees can use these flight simulators as many times as necessary, without endangering themselves, others, or destroying expensive equipment and infrastructure. In the old days, when there were no simulators, a pilot would have to practice landings by going into the air and coming back down. Which meant that if they messed up a landing, they were in danger, their co-pilot was in danger, and there’d be damage to the plane and the runway. Now, a trainee pilot can screw up a landing a hundred times without consequence. Well, aside from the social cost of error. Because the trainee’s instructors and colleagues witness his mistakes, he learns from them, and likely won’t make the same mistake countless times.

Now consider the training of military fighter pilots. Flight simulators are still employed and social costs are still a critical incentive in the training system. The only difference is the exposure to physical consequences of training. Because a fighter pilot has to endure and function in more extreme environments and situations, the possible consequences of his training must be escalated. He must learn more, so he must be able to benefit and to suffer to a greater degree during his training. That means live, simulated dogfights. That means difficult manoeuvres in unfavourable conditions. That means a heightened exposure to risk and reward. The graph below illustrates this.

A downhill mountain biker doesn’t learn much from misjudging a trail and tumbling off the side of a mountain; he learns a lot from misjudging the trail and almost falling to his death. Thus, to learn more, we must place ourselves in positions which expose us to a greater magnitude of consequence.