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Error! A Reflection on the Role of being Wrong, Feedback, and Learning

It’s been nearly a month since my trip to Italy came to an end in the beautiful city of Trapani where we held our latest edition of EdYOUfest. I had the honor of closing the second day of EdYOUFest with a shorter – but thought-provoking – session on the importance of making errors and how that relates to assessment and feedback. Before I go on, think about how you feel when you’re wrong about something.

Mistakes, errors, and stigma

If Kathryn Schulz is correct, and you can watch her TED Talk below, being wrong really sucks, doesn’t it? It makes us feel stupid, smaller, embarrassed, and many of those negative feelings from a whole life trying to avoid being wrong come right back.

After all, our society, particularly when education is concerned, seems to stigmatize mistakes – and errors. By the way, what’s the difference between mistakes and errors? In Brown (2000), it’s put quite simply that:

Mistakes are “slips” or a failure to use something correctly at a given time that does not reflect someone’s competence. We make mistakes all the time. We say something and correct ourselves almost immediately after. Errors, on the other hand, happen out of pure ignorance. We simply don’t know the correct way to say, do or use something because we may never have learned it – or perhaps we have learned it incorrectly.

That means a mistake can be self-corrected but an error needs to be corrected by someone else.

The question now is whether the stigma mistakes – and especially errors – have can influence learning outcomes. And if they do influence learning outcomes, what’s the best scenario, welcoming and embracing all sorts of mistakes and errors or trying to avoid them still? I suppose we need to understand what’s at stake first. I mean, what can this mistake or error lead to. Allow me an anecdote to illustrate my point.

A series of errors in Procida

Imagine sunny Italy in August. La Bella Italia full of tourists, delicious food and refreshing cocktails like Aperol Spritz. The heat is almost unbearable sometimes, which leads people to go for a swim on some paradise beach of crystal blue waters. My wife, my sister-in-law, and I were in Naples with nothing planned for the whole day. We decided to go to the Island of Procida to spend a few hours sunbathing, drinking, and swimming.

After a really nice ferry ride, we got off at the harbor and looked at Google Maps to check the nearest beach. It was early afternoon and the first screenshot on the left shows what path we took. We were heading to Silurenza Beach and Google sent us back, right turn, then up for 9 minutes under the scalding Italian sun. My wife was not happy but our reward awaited. The problem was: when we got to where Google sent us, we realized that something was wrong. There was no beach there. In fact, since we had walked up a steep avenue for nearly 10 minutes, the beach was further down and we could see some people swimming down there. We tried to self-correct but that was more like an error than a simple mistake so I decided to ask a local resident. He basically said:

Sinistra, sinistra!

Italian guy on a scooter

That meant we need to turn left, go down and turn left again. That is, we needed to go back to where we got off the ferry. My wife got even more unhappy. We managed to get to the beach and guess what? It was full. We couldn’t stay there. So we got a van that took us to the other side of the island, as shown in the screenshot above, and got off the van in the middle of a street. The third screenshot above shows the distance between where we got off and the Free Beach of Ciraccio (where you can find the Faraglioni di Procida – two amazing rock formations sticking out of the water close to the sand).

We were wrong again. Because we had to walk many minutes to get to a beach and we realized it was a bit crowded. But then, the next photos happened.

We ended up finding a wonderful place called Maresia inspired by our beautiful Brazilian culture where we could access a swimming pool – with a fantastic view of the beach – eat a very tasty Caprese salad and drink Aperol Spritz. My wife couldn’t be happier.

Errors as learning opportunities

What’s the point of the story above? Going back to the question “what’s at stake?”, we can think that these errors ended up leading us to an amazing discovery. But here’s the thing…

We could afford that. We had the time and resources. If anything, we’d at least have a fun story to tell our friends and family when we got back. In many work or educational settings, there’s too much at stake for people to make mistakes or errors. It means the emphasis is placed on preparing oneself to avoid mistakes. As the aphorism used by carpenters goes:

Measure twice, cut once

But that can be a terrible mistake. Not allowing room for mistakes and errors to happen can prevent great and enjoyable discoveries, like the day my wife, her sister, and I got lost on the Island of Procida. Errors are excellent learning opportunities and if our students are terrified of making them, they won’t even try new things. I suppose what I’m trying to say, and as a Star Wars geek it breaks my heart to admit this, is that Master Yoda was wrong:

Of course, I can justify Yoda’s message to Luke Skywalker by saying that the stakes were quite high. After all, it was the destiny of the whole galaxy they were talking about. But in our classrooms, trying, getting things wrong, and getting feedback is a fantastic learning mechanism.

The role of feedback

Stanislas Dehaene (2021), professor of neuroscience at College de France, published in his book How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now the Four Pillars of Learning, namely attention, engagement, error feedback, and consolidation. That means that we need correction to learn effectively and if we are not aware of what is wrong, we can’t self-correct. Sure you might say that we can always ask questions and wonder if we are wrong – that’s in line with the Socratic Method – or simply study hard to learn more and realize what errors we’re making, but many of our errors might be immune to that because we simply lack the tools to understand why we are wrong and how wrong we are.

That means that when we design students’ tasks for our lessons or when we work with summative assessment, we must ask ourselves “what’s at stake here for my students?”. Understand why exams are referred to as high-stakes testing?

We need to create an atmosphere that breaks the lifelong habit of avoiding mistakes and errors so that our students can feel comfortable trying new things, however, we must also teach them that some mistakes and errors should be avoided because in many cases they can’t afford to make them. We should embrace errors that lead to magnificent discoveries, no doubt. It’s through these errors that we can give guidance and assess our students’ learning path and potential. Nevertheless, we must prepare them for a world where sometimes all they have is one shot to prove themselves worthy of something. Some errors and mistakes can hurt people’s feelings, can make people look like amateurs or idiots, and can convey the message that whoever made them simply didn’t care enough to get prepared.

My session at EdYOUfest attempted to demonstrate how feedback can be effective in guiding our students towards a better learning path and how it should be an intrinsic part of assessment. My Guinea pigs were Thom Jones, Blanka Pawlak, and Mr. Trunk, my fierce stuffed elephant. The idea was quite simple. I placed Mr. Trunk at the end of the room and asked Thom to go fetch him with his eyes closed and without touching any chairs.

Thom’s first attemptThom started walking towards Mr. Trunk and soon bumped into a chair. Then he had to return and try again.
Thom’s second attemptHe walked a little bit further the second time but soon bumped into another chair
Blanka’s first attemptBlanka had been observing Thom and managed to walk a bit further than he did
Blanka’s second attemptThis time Blanka received feedback from every participant in the room. She managed the task but it took a very long time
Thom’s third attemptI got Blanka and Blanka alone to guide Thom through her feedback. Thom accomplished the task faster than she did

This simple exercise made us realize that trying something too challenging on your own without any feedback can be quite daunting and ineffective. You’re bound to make many errors and because they make you feel bad, you’re likely to give up – especially if the teacher askes you to repeat without any feedback. It also showed us that observing somenone errors can be a great teacher in its own right. Blanka did better than Thom probably because she paid attention to critical points in the trajectory (where chairs were closer to each other). We realized as well that getting feedback from many different sources can help you achieve your goal, but if the whole thing is too much and too disorganized, it might be so overwhelming that it won’t be efficient. Although Blanka completed the task, she felt lost many times with everyone shouting at her what to do.

Finally, we saw that receiving feedback from someone who’s already done the same thing (someone with experience or even an expert) while others were quiet worked quite well. Blanka had already completed the task and felt in her bones what it was like to achieve the goal of reaching Mr. Trunk. She guided Thom every step of the way through her feedback and he managed to complete the task.

What did this lesson teach us?

It is very hard to rid ourselves of the feeling we get when we make mistakes. Some of us are introverts and hate being exposed. Some of us may have been traumatized in the past and the thought of feeling small and stupid can stop us from even taking the first step. All of those negative feelings can be potentiated because we treat errors and mistakes as things to be avoided rather than embraced. Some should certainly be avoided when the stakes are high. Sometimes we have just one chance and we need precision and high quality performance. That requires preparation. Lots of it. However, without errors and mistakes, lots of amazing discoveries would never happen. Whenever I can afford the time and resources, I love to simply travel without much planning. I want to explore the city and discover things as if there were no Wikipedia or Google Maps. I often make a lot of errors, but I do have fun in the process.

May we keep erring on the safe (and sometimes risky) side so that we can create opportunities to receive feedback and improve as we go. And may we be able to assess the scenario and the stakes so we can decide how much we need to prepare ourselves, who we should get feedback from, and what mistakes – and errors – are worth making.

Another part of the story you should know is that after we paid our bill at Maresia, we asked someone where the exit was. We didn’t want to walk all the way back through the beach to get the van. Someone who worked there said there was an exit in the back and we saw a small ladder there. We assumed that was the exit. But we were wrong again. We basically broke into the owners’ house and they got scared when they saw us 😂. We apologized and went back through the same ladder. That’s when we decided to take the selfie below.

It was an embarrassing moment, no doubt. At least we have a fun story to tell now.

REFERENCES

Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching (Vol. 4). New York: Longman.

Dehaene, S. (2021). How we learn: Why brains learn better than any machine… for now. Penguin.

2 thoughts on “Error! A Reflection on the Role of being Wrong, Feedback, and Learning”

  1. Becoming a good teacher means being curious about learning. Being curious about learning involves taking risks, experimentation, trial and error, and reflection. This is a never ending process and that also means embracing life long learning. Great teachers are life long learners who embrace their mistakes, learn from their mistakes, and can move on to more important things in life: like personal well-being.

    1. Most definitely, Ron. We never truly stop learning. That’s why teachers who don’t change the way the do things must ask themselves why and keep looking for PD opportunities – or simply reflect on the things they do.

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