I recently heard a podcast episode (though I can’t remember which it was) where a woman shared an analogy that helped me sort out my own understandings around learning from mistakes. In the episode, the woman explained how it’s a common belief that practicing and making mistakes will help you learn and improve. But she had a slightly different take.
She applied the belief to typing. Many people spend over 50 hours per month typing yet they don’t seem to be getting much faster or more accurate. So even after years of practicing and making mistakes, many people still type at about the same speed they were typing when they graduated from college.
So, what’s going on here? Why aren’t they improving? After all, they are practicing and making mistakes. Why aren’t they getting better?
She goes on to explain that improving is more than just making mistakes. You must reflect on what happened and adjust your practice to avoid making them again. It’s intentional and reflective practice, not all practice. It seems intuitive to me.
When I have told teachers that mistakes cause your brain to spark and grow, they have said, “Surely this only happens if students correct their mistake and go on to solve the problem correctly.” But this is not the case. In fact, Moser’s study shows us that we don’t even have to be aware we have made a mistake for brain sparks to occur.
In reading this, I realize that Dr. Boaler does not actually say that you learn from mistakes you are unaware of but rather that “brain sparks” occur. I wonder what exactly a “brain spark” is. Is it the same as brain activity? Is it the same as brain growth? Is brain activity or growth the same as learning?
Her findings come from this research done by Jason S. Moser. Admittedly, I am very, very far from being an expert in understanding all of the data, so I relied more heavily on his interpretation of the data. Here are two quotes that stand out from his conclusions along with my thoughts about what he said.
Growth mind-set was associated with enhanced attention to corrective feedback following errors and subsequent error correction.
I interpret this to mean that having a growth mindset makes you more open to and aware of errors you make. This leads to being more receptive to information that will help you improve and avoid future mistakes.
Together with past findings, the current results suggest that one reason why a growth mind-set leads to an increased likelihood of learning from mistakes is enhanced on-line error awareness.
This seems to extend what he previously said, and he explicitly connects “an increased likelihood of learning from mistakes” to being extra aware from having a growth mindset.
If we don’t actually learn from mistakes we are unaware of, then we need to do a better job of helping students reflect on and learn from their mistakes. For example, that is the purpose behind the Open Middle Worksheet. It isn’t enough to just have students try a problem six times. Students need to take a brief moment to reflect on what they learned from the previous attempt and how it will help them next time. Skipping that reflection doesn’t result in the same kind of improvement.
I’d love some push back to challenge my conclusions and better understand this idea. What do you think? What am I wrong about? Please let me know in the comments below.