Monday, September 29, 2008

Learning and the Much Maligned Mistake

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you all
Guitar Front - artist Ken Allan.
For my last post in September, I write a tribute to the mistake. Having made several mistakes this month, I feel that I should extol the virtues of this much maligned, yet salutary indicator.

Of all the things that one does in a lifetime, the mistake deserves an accolade for being among the most unwanted deeds - deliberate or accidental. It is charged with bringing embarrassment, shame and criticism to its architect, and when recognised, can be looked upon with scorn even by young children.

Metaphors and euphemisms:

There is a mountain of expressions, metaphors and euphemisms that are used for the mistake:

blemish, bloomer, blot, blotch, blue, blunder, blur, boner, boob, boo-boo, bungle, clanger, error, fault, faux pas, flaw, folly, gaffe, gaucherie, glitch, gong, hitch, horlix, howler, impropriety, indiscretion, lapse, mark, miscue, misdeed,
miss, misstep, oversight, problem, slip, solecism, spot, stain, trip, typo, woopsy, wrong - the list goes on!

It is the doom of the skydiver, headache of the politician and the ruin of investors. But it does not deserve its reputation.

The mistake is the initiator of precision and perfection. Consider the supreme champions of archery and marksmanship. Who from these groups would achieve such keen accuracy and exactness without ever having made a single mistake?

Music to the ears:

Anyone who has just learnt to play even the easiest of musical instruments will be only too aware of the self-correcting quality that the mistake imparts to the custom and practice of the learner musician.

The fine ear of the soprano singer is tuned by practice in infinitesimal degrees, through which the delicate ability of the human ear picks up disharmony and imperfection, within a beat per second, in even the highest pitched musical notes.

If we were projected back in time to the days when Yasha Heifetz first scraped a tune on his violin, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart plonked his opening ditty on the piano, what illuminating wonders might we hear of the first and subsequent mistakes made by these celebrated virtuosos?

Darren Roberts made a list of ten ways the mistake or its consequence, failure, can be of benefit to the learner:

Encourages lateral thinking
Gives us experience
Builds character
Encourages the strong and discourages the weak!
Makes you honest with yourself
Makes one more intangible and thick-skinned
Success too soon can give false confidence
Encourages improvement and planning
Reveals your weaknesses
Success is the attitude; failure is the lever

“The person who never made a mistake never made anything,” is a Scottish adage. It implies that the mistake is part of the fundamental nucleus that is at the core of any acquisition through learning.
It becomes the hallmark of excellence by its default.

Go easy on the exponents:

As a teacher, I go easy on those who commit mistakes. I try to take care over how I address them:

May I never misjudge in speech or print
The might of that trite word but. Far from slight,
This subtle linking word is no mere hint
Of denial, but is a halting light,
A fleeting signal found among others
Far less importunate; it makes its mark
Almost unwittingly, and being terse
Can pass unnoticed like a curt choked bark,
A harbinger of prejudice expressed.
It is the stamp that damns the accolade,
The debit to annul the funds imprest,
The contempt to denounce all plaudits made:
And if before I use it I think twice,
I could save cutting a most unkind slice.

So celebrate the mistake. It fetches music to the ears, brings home celebrated champions, gives us award-winning scholars, and it put men on the Moon. It is a lesson with a possibility worthy of an "A" (attributed to Benjamin Zander).

( 10 ) ( 9 ) ( 8 ) ( 7 ) ( 6 ) ( 5 ) << - related posts - >> ( 3 ) ( 2 ) ( 1 )

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later


V Yonkers said...

I have always told my kids and my students that I don't mind mistakes, I do mind when they ignore them! From the time my kids could understand, I would say to them, "So what did you learn from that?" Now they know better than to say, "Nothing"!

Anonymous said...

BRAVO to mistakes. What a great writing on this very creative topic. Now I will return to your post, Ken and read it again. There's a lot here!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā kōrua Virginia and Bonnie!

@Virginia- aren't kids just wonderful to watch when they're learning? Your guidance will ensure they become lifelong learners.

@Bonnie- sorry for writing a lot for you to read! I haven't yet learnt how to be concise. Some day . . . :-)

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

Actually, upon reflection, I remember being reprimanded by a group of my students (all teachers), by saying that I like when my students make mistakes and "fail". (I think it was the term "failure" that set them off). Here in the US, there seems to be a myth that no child should ever fail, that by doing so you are ruining them for life.

Of course, growing up as a "failure" in school, I was living proof that this was not true. When I would come home devastated because I was "moved down" in the reading group and later had to go to extra reading classes, my mother (a teacher) told me that this was just one more thing to learn and that I shouldn't give up because something was difficult. She also would say things like, "Not everyone can be first, but being third or fourth is better than not doing it at all."

My parents would always put me in uncomfortable positions, making me do things I didn't want to, just so I would learn the old adage, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." (something I heard often growing up).

Although the majority of my students did not agree with me, they did see my point which was don't let the student leave the class believing they are a failure. Rather, teach them how to make mistakes (reward rather than punish them for taking a risk) and learn from those mistakes. My students that play it safe tend to do worse in my class (you do the minimum work well, you just pass the course, you take a risk and go beyond the work and learn from your mistakes, you do well in my class).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Virginia!

You and I both. I was also a bit of a failure at school, especially before I got to the senior school.

That failure, I'm sure, brought me subsequent success (but not exclusively:) that seemed to direct me towards learning with a similar dogged approach to the one you describe.

I guess there are two aspects to failure per se that have to be considered. For some it can be a damning thing that kills the spirit. I think you are right to recognise the role of the teacher in saving learners from this.

The balance comes when addressing the need to experience failure by those who coast, and seldom experience its salutary usefulness, simply because they rarely experience it.

The argument in my post, however, is about the Mistake at the origin of, and throughout, the learning process. It may subsequently lead to Failure.

I put the mistake in a different category. I'd never say that a mistake was failure. I'd sooner say that failure was a mistake. ;-)

Ka kite