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Home Education Magazine

November-December 2000 - Articles

Making Mistakes and Thinking for Yourself- Jana Mohr Lone

Do not fear mistakes. There are none.
- Miles Davis


I think a lot about mistakes. Partly because as the parent of three boys I am all too aware that I make mistakes with them every day, and partly because I have come to understand mistakes as fundamental keys to learning. I have been puzzling about the idea that mistakes are never just mistakes in the dictionary sense (American Heritage Dictionary: "an error or a fault resulting from defective judgment, deficient knowledge, or carelessness; a misconception or misunderstanding"), but are always opportunities for deeper awareness and understanding. I want my children, all children, to have the chance to understand the valuable role of mistakes in life.

Whenever we experiment, we are likely to make mistakes. If we are afraid of mistakes, we will never experiment. And it seems to me crucial to the cultivation of an inquiring and imaginative mind that a person be willing to experiment: with ideas, activities, life. By an inquiring and imaginative mind I mean a mind that is questioning, critical, reflective and creative; this, I believe, is essential for making sense of the world and for living a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Recently my oldest son, Will, began writing a book. Each day he tries to write a chapter (one page), and draw an illustration for that chapter. When he had written 4 or 5 pages, he asked us if we would buy him a special book to use for his project. We agreed and bought him a green journal with lined pages. That night Will decided that he would decorate the cover of the book. He wrote the title and his name in indelible ink, and then said he would write over the words with glitter glue. I suggested that we wait until morning, but that clearly was not acceptable to him. So he set to work.

Quickly Will realized that it is very difficult to outline small letters with glitter glue, and he started to worry that he had made a mistake. So he decided to use the glitter glue instead to decorate the cover more generally, and began to spread it around. But it was so thick that it covered what he had written and turned into a sticky mess. He became very upset and ran in to me, crying, "I've ruined it! I've totally ruined it!" We looked at it and wiped off the thick glue, which came off easily, and then he spread the rest of it around to make a pretty design. Because we had wiped it with a cloth, the effect was soft and textured. Will, however, continued to worry that he had ruined the book, saying, "Why do I always make mistakes?" I suggested that we get to sleep, and told him that I expected that by morning when the glue dried the book would look fine. Sure enough, when we picked up the book the following morning, the design was dry and quite lovely. Will was very relieved. We talked about the fact that had he not made the mistake, he never would have gotten this interesting soft glittery effect with which he wound up.

Joseph Chilton Pearce once said, "To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." But somewhere along the line most of us learn that being wrong is shameful, to be avoided. That making mistakes is embarrassing and that it is better not to put ourselves on the line if the result might be our feeling humiliated. And so we begin to be afraid to take risks that, if taken, might result in our making mistakes - but also might result in original, exciting new ideas.

When we are babies we begin trying to crawl, flopping down with frustration many many times before we get it right, and we are not afraid of making mistakes. If we were, we'd never learn to crawl. Then, as toddlers, we learn to walk and talk, again falling down innumerable times and crying with frustration at the inability of those around us to understand what we are saying, but we keep trying. And we are not afraid of making mistakes.

As preschoolers, we play with paint and color and letters and numbers and blocks and balls and tricycles, and we make all kinds of mistakes, and we are not afraid of making them. Not only are we not afraid of being wrong through all of these early experiences, but as we are encouraged to try again and again we learn that making mistakes takes us closer to what we are trying to master or understand. That mistakes are valuable steps in the process of developing ourselves and our control over our world.

And then, at some point after (for most children) school begins, we begin to hesitate before we try new things, or express new ideas, or experiment with textures and colors. A critical voice has begun to take root in our minds, admonishing us frequently that we don't know what we are doing and if we aren't careful we will look foolish. That making mistakes means that we didn't know something we should have known or couldn't do something we should have been able to do. We begin to be afraid to try new things, or to speak up when we aren't sure. We hesitate to ask questions. And the slow burial of independent, creative thinking begins.

Howard Gardener, in The Unschooled Mind, discusses what he calls "the fragility of our knowledge." He relates a story about a conversation that he had with his daughter about her college physics class, with which she was having difficulty. Gardner attempted to support her and suggested that she talk with her teacher to see if she could obtain help in understanding the material. Gardner's daughter replied, "You don't get it, Dad. I've never understood it." Gardner notes that in schools all over the world, "if you answer questions on a multiple-choice test in a certain way, or carry out a problem set in a specified manner, you will be credited with understanding. No one ever asks the further question 'But do you really understand?' because that would violate an unwritten agreement: a certain kind of performance shall be accepted as adequate for this particular instructional context. The gap between what passes for understanding and genuine understanding remains great...." Indeed.

I believe this gap is enormous, that in classrooms every day young people are credited with learning things they have not learned. Students don't take the time to try really to understand what they are studying because that is not the point of the enterprise. To understand something with depth and assurance requires playing with it, asking questions, making mistakes, spending time just thinking about it. In school, however, the point is good grades and the appearance of knowledge. What others perceive about us becomes what counts, and not what you in your heart know to be true.

If I receive an "A" on an economics exam, I can say that I understand something about economics, even if all I understand is how to memorize information and record it on tests in the way teachers expect. The lack of genuine understanding about many of the subjects we supposedly learned in school not only indicts schools as fraudulent in some sense (as Gardner notes), but gives many of us the lurking feeling that we carry into adulthood that we are frauds and someday may be found out. Talk to any group of graduate students in virtually any subject area, for example, and (if they are being completely honest) they will tell you that they often feel that they don't really understand their subjects and are spending a lot of time masquerading as experts.

When we think about the things we understand best, about which we are most comfortable talking with other people, what do they tend to be? I have been asking people this question lately. Invariably they tell me about interests they have poetry, cooking, fixing cars, Shakespeare that they have taught themselves or sought out as a result of an interest they developed on their own. Rarely do people refer to something they first learned about in school. It is not that there are no good teachers in school. It is that the system itself provides few incentives for students to learn things in a genuine way.

What does it mean to understand something deeply and authentically? We each have to figure that out for ourselves, I think. I spent many years in school, but it was not there that I developed a love of learning. I have come to believe that genuine understanding at its core requires freedom to make mistakes and to think for oneself. I want my sons to have little experience with pretending to understand something they don't. They haven't yet absorbed the lesson that being perceived as understanding something is as important as, or more important than, actually understanding it. I hope they never do.

(c) 2000, Jana Mohr

November-December 2000 - Articles

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