“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them – especially not from yourself.” – Daniel Dennett.

I’ve been rereading the philosopher, Daniel Dennett’s wonderfully erudite manual for making and improving on mistakes, Intuition Pumps. The first – and maybe most important – of his seven tools for thinking is that we should use our mistakes*. Now, there’s a lot written in praise of mistakes and failure; some of it sensible but much of it eulogistic to the point of absurdity. Making mistakes for the sake of making mistakes is not something to be lauded, it’s just a waste of time. As Dennett makes clear, the point of a mistake is to learn from it and not to make it again.

So, is learning from mistakes natural? Something that we just do? Well, sometimes. Clearly there are times when we see students make intuitive leaps because of the level of struggle involved in trying to work on a problem. Sometimes students are shown the ‘right’ way to do something and, because of the frustration of trial and error, vow never to waste their time going about things the ‘wrong’ way again. But then there are times – more than we should be comfortable with – when students keep making the same mistakes time and again with apparently no learning taking place.

Why is this? I think the answer to this puzzler is probably twofold; it’s partly to do with the type of subject students are learning about, and partly to do with the way the mistake is processed.

When the subject domain is one in which we have probably evolved an innate capacity to learn then we tend to learn well from trial and error. These are biologically primary areas of knowledge. Watching young children learn to walk, speak and negotiate their environments is full of this kind of learning. Children make very predictable mistakes, watch the reactions and then revise their approach. Sometimes this happens because whatever they were trying to do simply didn’t work, and sometimes it’s down to correction from adults and the knowledge that even though some things might work, they’re simply ‘not done’. Here’s a selection of common grammatical mistakes which almost everyone learns are wrong and so stops making them.

Then there are biologically secondary areas of learning. It’s speculated that certain areas of human knowledge – mathematics, the physical sciences, psychology – are based on ‘folk’ versions. We all learn folk psychology (e.g. the rules of cheating) folk physics (the effects of gravity) and folk biology (understanding the differences between cats and dogs) with little or no formal instruction, but the deeper reality of science can be hard to learn because it contradicts what we intuitively know about the world.

School is full of this kind of learning. Making mistakes is commonplace and, with careful attention students will either continue to repeat their errors, or learn a process with no understanding of why they should do it that way. Because academic subjects are inherently unnatural, we can’t rely on students prior knowledge of the world to act as a useful guide. We need to explain things which otherwise wouldn’t make sense, critique and question these things, and then help them to express their own, new and improved, understanding of the world.

In English literature, for instance, understanding that writers choose words and arrange those words for particular effects isn’t something most people acquire just from learning how to communicate. Usually we just use the first words that come to mind and arrange them without much consideration. It therefore makes sense to suppose poets and playwrights do something similar and it comes as something of a shock to discover that English teachers think there are other, deeper reasons for the passages they have us read. When they ask, “What do you think the writer’s trying to say here?” we have no idea. Why wouldn’t they just say whatever they wanted to say as clearly as possible, just like we do? Asking students for an uneducated opinion is a bit unfair, because although they’ll know a lot about the world, most of what they know will be biologically primary and hence at odds with academic knowledge. We need to tell them what we, and others, think about why and how a writer might be trying to express. And then we need to get them to see that there are other, possibly better, possibilities. We need to crowbar open their certainties and show them that anything can be questioned, but only if you know enough to ask decent questions. Then, once they’ve acquired a reasonable breadth of academic knowledge and the habit of critiquing that knowledge, then we can teach them to construct analytical essays which reveal new and insightful ways to think about the written word.

This process will be littered with mistakes, blind alleys and frustration. Somewhere along the line some children seem to learn that making these mistakes is a source of shame and something to be covered up. This is, perhaps, the biggest mistake of all.

As Dennett says:

The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are. … The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it and not just another blind stab in the dark.

We have all heard the forlorn refrain “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” is standing on the threshold of brilliance.

He goes on to offer the following advice:

So when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It’s not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves), and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions. Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities to make grand mistakes, just so you can then recover from them.

Maybe good teaching is, in its purest essence, the act of allowing, encouraging and demanding the savouring of mistakes. And then setting them behind you. Maybe this act – of staring fearlessly into the heart of error and choosing to learn – is the threshold not just of brilliance, but of any brand of success.

*If you’re interested, Dennett’s seven tools for thinking are:

  1. Use your mistakes
  2. Respect your opponents
  3. Be wary of “surely”
  4. Answer rhetorical questions
  5. Employ Occam’s razor
  6. Don’t waste your time on rubbish
  7. Beware of ‘deepities’.