Learning from mistakes – Embracing Failure (week 8)

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2011 at 1:29 PM

Whilst browsing the TED website I came across a talk by Diana Laufenberg, in which, she was talking about her experiences as a teacher in America. She touched on the topic of errors within learning, in particular embracing them.

Now this is a concept that I feel is left untouched in the traditional classroom. Most individuals are taught to fear errors within work and errors are often seen as an event where no learning occurs (or lack of learning is shown) – but this is not the case.

Consider the case of Thomas Edison – when producing the first light bulb he found 1000 ways not to make it! The knowledge obtained from the errors he made was crucial in his success.

Knowledge gained from making errors is often referred to in the literature as Negative knowledge.

Negative knowledge

Defined by Oser and Spychiger (2005) (cited in Gartmeier et al, 2008) as knowledge about “what something is not, (in contrast to what it is), and how something does not work, (in contrast to how it works), which strategies do not lead to the solution of complex problems (in contrast to those, that do so) and why certain connections do not add up (in contrast to why they add up)”

Just making a mistake does not mean you will acquire negative knowledge; it is necessary for individual to be able to realise, analyse and to correct mistakes; a strategy for prevention of further mistakes also has to be built.

In this sense Negative knowledge can be related to metacognitive knowledge…the term used to refer to acquired knowledge about cognitive processes, which can be used to control cognitive processes (Livingston, 1997)

In a paper by Gartmeier, Bauer, Gruber and Heid (2008) the functions of negative knowledge* were outlined in terms of a professional context:

Functions of Negative Knowledge

(1) Supports certainty in how to proceed: certainty in work situations can be explained by means of an individuals’ explicit and precise knowledge about what things might go wrong and, in turn, about what actions to avoid in a specific situation.

(2) Increases efficiency during actions: this has been shown on an organisational level, whereby error management (which fosters negative knowledge) was shown to be positively related with company performance.

(3) Enhances the quality and depth of reflection processes on action. It is proposed that negative knowledge is a stimulating element within reflective processes due to its heuristic function.

(*Not a lot of research is out there on Negative knowledge, and the main papers appear to refer to workplace learning.)

Encouraging mistakes in the classroom:

View mistakes not as a crime, but as information: aversion from answering questions in the classroom comes from the negative social outcome associated with providing an incorrect answer. I think this point links very closely to a number of class Blogs’ on the classroom as a society. (Blog by Jess B has more info).

Allowing kids to fail as an important step in the learning process: but provide scaffolding to help them assess failures, not just ignore them. (Making mistakes would be clearly differentiated from carelessness and lack of effort, which would not be tolerated.)

How do we do this:

Motivation: Bengtsson, Lau, and Passingham, 2009 found that when individuals are motivated there is a higher level of activation in the anterior paracingulate cortex, lateral prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex in response to errors compared to those less motivated. It was argued that motivation to do well leads to treating errors as being in conflict with one’s ideals for oneself.

Errors in the classroom should become acceptable in the sense that students should not be afraid to make them, but a high level of motivation needs to be maintained in the classroom so that students view them as something that need to be rectified.

Multiple testing: allow individuals to rectify their mistakes

Desirable difficulties: challenge students; just because they don’t succeed at first do not mean it is a bad process.


In terms of teacher training is not as vitally important that teachers learn from the mistakes they make?

It seems (at times) that we expect teachers to be constantly perfect at their jobs (For example, scripting a lesson for a teacher to read to the class). In any line of work we have to accept that human error will occur, and it is how individuals deal with this error that is important, not that they made it.

That being said, how much of a risk do we want teachers to be taking? If it is important for teachers to learn from mistakes do we leave them to make them? Possibly a way to deal with this is through the use of mentoring, new teachers could learn through the mistakes more experienced teachers have made previously in their careers.

Overall I see negative knowledge as an important concept, and definitely believe that more research needs to be undertaken to understand how it can fit into a classroom setting.

Any Thoughts?

  1. A positive outlook towards mistakes, as a learning experience, rather than a failure, is certainly a beneficial perspective to hold. The outcome of such an approach would be profound and I suggest would have implications in several domains especially motivation. By presenting the outcome as a win win situation, rather than win lose, individuals are far more likely to engage and actively pursue knowledge. In addition such a view may reduce the sense of learned helplessness and instil a internal locus of control in the individual. Another insightful post thanks Dan.

  2. Great BLOG Dan. I definitely agree with you here in that mistakes are bound to happen (I know I’ve made a lot – some of which are recurring…) and are things that should be embraced so that we may navigate our way clearly the next time around. However, I think that removing the negative feelings that are associated with “failure” is impossible – even if no one in the class has explicitly made fun of the person for giving an incorrect answer (for example). Nevertheless, I believe that you can create an environment in which there is an extremely high level of respect for other people and learning. You made an excellent point about teachers too. Although each one will inevitably make a huge mistake during their career, they should be entitled to some mentoring in order to avoid them if possible.

    By the way, what do you think of the phrase “learning opportunity” used in Precision Teaching? Would this fit in well with a classroom encouraging Negative Knowledge?

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