Learning from our mistakes

Why Do Some People Learn Faster? 

Jonah Lehrer

Wired, October 4, 2011

“The physicist Niels Bohr once defined an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” Bohr’s quip summarizes one of the essential lessons of learning, which is that people learn how to get it right by getting it wrong again and again. Education isn’t magic. Education is the wisdom wrung from failure.

A new study, forthcoming in Psychological Science, and led by Jason Moser at Michigan State University, expands on this important concept. The question at the heart of the paper is simple: Why are some people so much more effective at learning from their mistakes? After all, everybody screws up. The important part is what happens next. Do we ignore the mistake, brushing it aside for the sake of our self-confidence? Or do we investigate the error, seeking to learn from the snafu?

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One comment on “Learning from our mistakes

  1. Bryan Marinelli says:

    This passage from the article sums up the research findings perfectly: “The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the ‘smart’ compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes. Because unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong — that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore — the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence.”

    The findings support the implementation of alternative models for teaching and learning: models that encourage students to take risks and to risk failure, but that also afford them opportunities to learn from their failures, not be “penalized” for them. The question for me is, how can curricula be (re)designed to encourage, create space for, and reward risk taking, even if those risks do not “pan out”?

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