The culture of errors

Rather make mistakes than do nothingWriting my last blog post “Fish anyone” I thought about the way we can prepare your youngsters for their future. How can we teach them not mindless content which is going to be obsoltete in a few years anyway but the principle behind it?

Reading and disagreeing with”Learning from failure is overrated” I started thinking about learning from failure.

First of all, making mistakes isn’t a bad thing overall. It just means are absolutely 100% sure what doesn’t work. The second and in my opinion more important thing is: Making mistakes means you’re actually doing something; you experimenting with the subjuct, playing with it, just have a go or don’t. Making errors implies that you already dealing with a certain topic hands on. You already rolled up your sleeves and dug in deep.

Psychologists call that kind of learning “Error Management Training (EMT)” and have proven that it is often more effective than regular training methods. EMT promotes adaptive learning over analog learning and part of its process is to reveal errors, so the possibility that students discover their own errors is very high. So why aren’t more people using that method that is effective and I’d say more fun?

I came up with a bunch of reasons:

  1. Beaten Paths
    Let’s be honest, a lot of teachers like to wander on beaten paths. There is a lot of material already given and mostly even standard solutions. To most questions there is a standard answer. The effort they have to bring is very low.
    Going a new path in which students can have questions the teacher isn’t prepared for is definetly more effort. Additionally going new ways mostly comes with some resistance from many directions: students, fellow teachers and super visors.
    Since the Bologna process started the lunacy of “everybody is doing the same everywhere”, new ways are even harder to go for a single teacher.
  2. Freedom in experimenting
    Due to the Bologna process, studies are structured more and more school-like. There is already a plan, where you have to go, which classes you have to take and when they are taking place and when. Students are getting used to just follow a way of getting information, storing it in their brain and spill it out during exams.
    I think for a lot of students it would be difficult at first to approach a “loose” way of EMT, just diving into a topic without a particular objective. Some get even confused without a assignment. The reason herefore is connected with the way we handle errors or failure.
  3. Culture of Errors
    In my opinion, our society has a little problem with failure or making mistakes. It is mostly seen as something bad which you absolutely have to avoid. Making mistakes in an exam means you get less credits, making mistakes within your line of work means you get trouble from your boss. Instead of trying and maybe failing, a lot of students prefer to do nothing and wait for the right answer. Very few people see the opportunity within errors.

Ross Mayfield, the VP of development for Slideshare says in his blog post Culture of Failure that there was a culture of failure before the bust of the dot-com bubble and that it did do a lot:

“Most people learned more in those fast years than they did in their entire career. …  I can’t imagine how any manager who went through it would not recognize past mistakes and false incentives.”

He even thinks it is required: “If a culture can’t accept and build upon failure, it will never be a success.”

How we, as a society, are handling errors also affect how we are learning. The way we demonize errors, students actually are afraid of making mistakes. Neurologists know for some time that if you are in a state of fear, your creativity goes back to almost zero. (A man, attacked by a tiger, doesn’t think of the most creative way of fleeing, normaly he relies on well-known patterns).
Students flinch from doing it and risking a mistake. They actually prefer doing nothing and wait. By stigmatizing errors, we push students into a passive attitude, which is the exact opposite we want them to be in.

Young children don’t show that behaviour. Sir Ken Robinson tells that story in his talk “Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity” where a little boy had to substitute within the nativity play and doesn’t recall the text exactly. Instead of “I bring you frankincence” he utters “Fank sent this”! He just have a go and tries what he thinks is right. He wasn’t afraid to be wrong. Maybe it is not a coincidence that young children follow the path of “trial an error” and have the steepest learning curve at the same time.

So in order to motivate students to just try, go ahead and have a go, digg in deep in content without shying away from making mistakes, we have to chance the way we look at errors. We have to build a culutre of errors.

What do you think could we do to build this culutre? Is it possible to incorporate this culutre to your normal school system? Let me know what you think! Comments are welcome!





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