Learning From Errors

February 3, 2019


Our allergy to errors/mistakes/failure is what holds us back in many aspects of our lives, like education, career, relationships, etc. However, contrary to common belief, mistakes and failure, especially the ones that we consider shameful or humiliating, are our most powerful learning opportunities, because that crushing feeling is a very powerful way to absorb something and retain it.

An impressive scientific review that was published in Annual Review of Psychology titled “Learning from Errors” by a professor of psychology at Columbia University, Janet Metcalfe, suggests that teachers and learners alike should be encouraged to be open to mistakes and to actively use them in becoming prepared for the "test that counts."

Below is an excerpt from the article:

"Instead of beginning with teacher-directed classwork and explication, Japanese students first try to solve problems on their own, a process that is likely to be filled with false starts. Only after these (usually failed) attempts by students does teacher-directed discussion—interactively involving students and targeting students’ initial efforts and core mathematical principles—occur. It is expected that students will struggle and make errors, insofar as they rarely have available a fluent procedure that allows them to solve the problems. Nor are students expected to find the process of learning easy. But the time spent struggling on their own to work out a solution is considered a crucial part of the learning process, as is the discussion with the class when it reconvenes to share the methods, to describe the difficulties and pitfalls as well as the insights, and to provide feedback on the principles at stake as well as the solutions.

As Stevenson & Stigler (1994, p. 193) note, “Perhaps because of the strong influence of behavioristic teaching, which says conditions should be arranged so that the learner avoids errors and makes only a reinforceable response, American teachers place little emphasis on the constructive use of errors as a teaching technique. Learning about what is wrong may hasten understanding of why the correct procedures are appropriate, but errors may also be interpreted as failure. And Americans, reluctant to have such interpretations made of their children's performance, strive to avoid situations where this might happen.”

The Japanese active learning approach well reflects the fundamental ideas of a learning-from-errors approach. Engaging with errors is difficult, but difficulty can be desirable for learning (Bjork 2012). In comparison with approaches that stress error avoidance, making training more challenging by allowing false starts and errors followed by feedback, discussion, and correction may ultimately lead to better and more flexible transfer of skills to later critical situations."


You can read the full article and its findings here.




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