The Value of Mistakes

“I could have warned you – but you shouldn’t be robbed of your right to make mistakes.” 
— Tom Campbell Black as quoted in  West with the Night”
One of my favorite techniques in class facilitation is called “circling back.” It works like this: As we begin a discussion regarding a case, an exceptionally diligent and bright student answers my big question almost as soon as I have finished asking it. I wait for a few moments to see if anyone else picks up on it, but often it is too far ahead of the crowd and it gets swept aside as the class focuses on other, smaller, tangentially related issues. I allow the discussion to roam, knowing that eventually we will come back to that wise student’s point. Then I’ll again ask the student about that initial statement, allowing him or her to amplify it, and then use it in the summation of the case. We have circled back and given brilliance its due.
This technique can also be used when a student answers my big question, but has completely misses the point and, perhaps, has even misunderstood, or overlooked a basic principle. It happens roughly as often as the brilliant answer, and often from similar students – those that have diligently prepared and thought a lot about the core issues of the case. There is a fine line between brilliance and bafflement, and a student can easily fall on one side as the other. Regardless, as the discussion progresses to the point where we’ve reached a broad plateau, a place to stop and look around, assessing where we are and where we’ve come, I return that initial comment and ask the student to reassess and try again.
The misguided student almost always has found the error, and knows the way from there. Even if he hasn’t, he’s at least allowed to recognize how he has gone astray. And, just as important, we have welcomed that student back into the fold. The student has listened and learned, reevaluated his mistake and can now move on. If I don’t circle back to that student, he feels ostracized, a failure, and won’t soon, if ever, try again. We can’t have that.
Circling back works for both answers, allowing both the great answer and the completely lost answer to reside in the classroom. If we are to provide a safe environment for learning, then we have to allow for mistakes, recognizing that bad answers are as acceptable to the conversation as good answers – if we eventually recognize them as such.   Let’s be clear, though, these aren’t from carelessness, but rather thoughtful answers containing honest mistakes.
While Plato posits that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, I would argue that the unexamined mistake isn’t worth making. If you make a mistake and don’t wonder why you made it, then you’re just hoping to get lucky rolling the dice.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” is a great concept, Mr. Edison, and we should follow in spirit, though not specifics. If we are attempting something 10,000 times, then we are clearly not paying enough attention to our mistakes — or we are trying to reinvent the electric light. In either case, we should step back for a moment and consider just what it is we are trying to accomplish. If it is the electric light, then carry on, I suppose, for all else, we need to find a better way.
And honest mistakes do help us find a better way if we take time to study them. Hence the after-action report and review is essential. The student and teacher should find that what went wrong and why is as fascinating as what went right. The learning curve is more accurately the learning-from-mistakes curve.
We need to recognize the benefits of learning from our mistakes. It is not the presence of gravity that leads to enlightenment, but rather the presence of an apple that kindly smites our head. If we already understand gravity, then it’s a mistake to sit under an apple tree, but if we don’t, it’s a great start to on the path to enlightenment. While the apple might hurt, it does no lasting damage and its benefits are huge. The same should be said of mistakes in the classroom.
If we are to avoid the “download answers” approach to learning, then we can start with open-ended questions to difficult problems. Casting students into the roiling sea is an exciting approach, but we need to remember to make heavy use of the lifesaver, and there are times when a murky swimming pool works even better than the sea because it is safer. This is akin learning to ice skate with a cushion tied to one’s behind — the cushion is a requirement. If students risk paying too dearly for a mistake, then they will avoid it at all costs. They will learn like livestock learn to avoid electric fences, herd animals, fearing to going astray.
Learning anything requires back up — a co-pilot, a safety net, a crash helmet, a cushion — so that the student can make mistakes and to live to try another day. Olympic marathon runner and journalist Kenny Moore once argued that this refinement was how sport became art. Unlike war, the vanquished in sport were allowed to live to fight another day. Our students must, in turn, be allowed to fail and live to learn another day.
When the pioneering pilot Beryl Markham was learning to fly in East Africa, her instructor rarely spoke to her. He would climb into the front cockpit, put away the headset, and simply ride along. He told her that this way she would always remember both the error and the correction. Of course, he was there at the controls, ensuring that if things became really sticky, she would live to learn and fly another day, but he exercised great restraint, sometimes frightfully so.
“It’s no good my telling you where you go wrong each time you do. Your own intelligence will tell you that,” he said. “Speed sense, sense of height, and sense of error will come later. If they don’t, well…but they will.”
Years later, Markham became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, crash landing her fuel-starved plane in a Nova Scotia bog. Later, she wrote about her adventures, including her time learning to fly. Her teacher was Tom Campbell Black.
This originally appeared in a slightly different form at GLOBIS Insights]]>

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