Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Learning and mistakes

Separating out what's useful from what's not useful in our context of learning

Thread:                           Context, Learning, Mistakes
Previous related entry:     1/5/2011 "We are always in a context"
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
          —Michael Jordon
“I’m not a great inventor, I just make mistakes faster than most people.”
          —Thomas Edison

How do we make meaning and respond when we are in the context of learning something new? It certainly depends on whether we're alone, at or work, being judged, or exploring our own interests. To a great extent, it depends on our personal history. What's useful and what's not useful about how we have learned to approach learning?

Much learning—to walk, to ride a bicycle, to write, for example—occurs in a natural flow of trying something new, making adjustments, and trying again.

For many of us, as we grow up, this natural process of learning becomes burdened with the tension of having to get it right the first time and trying to avoid mistakes. The following illustrates how this might happen with a single instance taken from an early experience that involves learning the alphabet, learning to write, and learning to use an eraser.

The natural pleasure of learning
I was an earnest little kid. I was learning to distinguish the lowercase ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, and ‘q’ from each other. Sometime in first grade, we graduated from those big thick pencils to the more grownup thin yellow models with an eraser… it felt like a big deal.

While copying words the teacher had written on the board, I wrote a ‘b’ that should have been a ‘d’… and I caught it! With my new pencil I carefully erased it and made the correction. I felt good.

Learning about mistakes
When the teacher walked by my desk she said, “You didn’t erase very well—I can see both your mistake and your correction. Erase it again, and then copy the correct letter.”

I now understood that I had made two of what the teacher called “mistakes.” First, I made a ‘b’ instead of ‘d’ and, second, I didn’t erase well enough. I didn’t feel good about this. I wanted to make it right so the teacher would approve of me. (I couldn’t yet distinguish between Teacher’s approval of my work and her approval of me.)

Learning to try to avoid making mistakes in front of others
Intent on doing it right, this time I pressed the eraser harder into the paper. It ripped! From across the room she said, curtly and more loudly than necessary, “Get another piece of paper. Now you’ll have to copy everything over.” Whatever Teacher’s intentions, I understood that I had done something wrong and that I was being admonished in front of the whole class. I felt stupid and ashamed.

Learning to be anxious and hesitant about circumstances of formal learning
On some level I understood that even when I tried my hardest to avoid them, mistakes had a way of sneaking up and happening anyway. When learning something new, like using an eraser, I couldn’t anticipate what might happen, like ripping the paper. But not being able to anticipate what might happen is what made it learning instead of already-knowing!

Over time and with enough experiences of this sort, we approach formal learning situations (school, work settings) anxiously and hesitantly. We want to avoid making mistakes and the resultant feelings of shame—of having screwed up again. It doesn’t matter if we know we can’t see a mistake coming. After we make a mistake, we can still beat ourselves up thinking we should have known better. Not a good feeling.

A variant: Learning to be hypercritical of oneself (I always make mistakes)
Perhaps you grew up around a critical parent who found fault with you (“On that paper that got a 97, what’d you mess up to get dinged 3 points?”) or who “helpfully” corrected you (“Toy dump trucks don’t fly! Here, let me show you how to play with that”).

As the natural pleasure in our own process of learning is repeatedly interrupted, we gradually learn to think of ourselves as incompetent and in need constant correction. We learn to be hyper-critical of ourselves.

Another variant: Learning I must be perfect (no mistakes!)
Or perhaps you were seen as a smart and capable child. Your parents, relatives, or teachers may have held you up as someone other children should emulate… as when Uncle says to Cousin, “Why can’t you be more like [your name]?” or Teacher says, “[your name] was the only one to get an A on this paper. [Your name, again], please read your essay to the class.”

As nice as this might feel at the time, it puts a lot of pressure on [your name] to be perfect… and to not make a mistake. From this, one might learn to have impossible and unhappy-making expectations of oneself.

Splitting our attention between what we are doing and doing it right
About such learning, Charles Brooks in his book “Reclaiming Vitality and Presence” writes:

As children, we naturally gave full attention to everything, though it all may have changed every moment. Then the authorities told us about our responsibility not to just do things but to do them right. Since then, our attention has been divided between what we are doing and whether we are doing it right. (p100)
In other words, our natural enlivening process of learning something new becomes burdened with self-consciously trying to avoid making mistakes.

Imagine this: No mistakes, just learning
To put the above experience in sharper relief, imagine if my experience had played out this way: The first time the teacher sees my paper she says, “Ah! You erased something [points to it]. Do you see how you can still see the old letter you erased? You learned how erasers work when you press them into the paper very gently. If you press a little harder you can erase the old letter so you can hardly see it. Try again on another letter.”

I press a little harder and now focus on erasing the pencil marks. I rip the paper! The teacher immediately says, “Great! Now you know more about too soft and too hard. Pick another letter and practice with that eraser. If you rip the paper, that’s too hard, if you can still see it clearly, that’s too soft.” I pick a letter and begin erasing. She watches and then says, “That’s it, that’s better, it takes a little practice to really learn something new.”

Learning to like formal and directed learning
In this fantasy, my natural trial and error process of learning is welcomed into the setting of formal and directed learning—a school room. I am learning to enjoy learning around others, and to accept and use the support of others in my own process of learning. 

Selver & Brooks (2007).“Reclaiming vitality and presence: Sensory awareness as a practice for life; The teachings of Charlotte Selver and Charles V. W. Brooks.” Lowe, R. & Laeng-Gilliatt, S. (eds.). North Atlantic Books, P.O. Box 12327 Berkeley, CA 94712.

1 comment:

david66 said...

You raise an interesting distinction between learning and achieving, I think.
The external response to one's work can come down on one or the other or both, perhaps.
To me, this exemplifies a distinction between process and product, a distinction any true teacher would have access to.