As a teacher, I know that failure teaches more than success. And yet, by failure, I don’t mean an urbanized understanding of a letter grade. I mean the risk taking and attempts made by a student to solve the riddle that the teacher has produced. This in many ways mirrors a Koan.
A Koan, through the lenses of education, is a question that evokes strong thought, measures the skills and talents of a student, and then asks that student to produce an example of the answer rather than the description. For example, as an Art teacher, I may ask a student: “You know what the primary colors are, how to mix secondary or even tertiary colors as well. What does your favorite color look like?” The student would then embark on an exploration of color mixing, color use, and allegorical or metaphorical imaginings. The result would be in the demonstration of the internal understanding of the color chosen as seen through the eyes of the artist. Each answer would be different and unique as seen by the student. The act of asking the Koan and the process involved in answering it focuses on the soft skills of internal insight and exploration. The student has to understand the application and appropriateness of the skills in order to answer the question sufficiently.
As successful learning involves multiple risks, failure elegantly serves as our strongest instructor. It teaches us not only what doesn’t work, but why it doesn’t work. When given a strong enough Koan, it asks the student to understand a greater meaning. These meanings can seldom be placed into words, as it is the experience of doing, feeling, and absorbing of the process that is the true lesson. The questions simply points a student in the direction to go.