Mistakes and Learning

How “Mistakes” Build Inner Learning Criterion


Do we really learn from our mistakes?

Surprisingly not always. Mistakes can become the hallmark of failure for students rather than the access to mastering knowledge.

In the world of The Intuitive Teacher, as envisioned by Dr. Caleb Gattengo, the job of the teacher becomes less one of dispensing of facts and testing to see which facts have been retained or memorized, to one of helping students develop their own “learning criteria” that will guide them through mastering anything they are learning regardless of whether they start out thinking the are suited to learn it or not.

In other words there is a mathematician, musician, artists, scientist or writer in each of us. We just need to able to give us what it takes to find these people inside of us.

“Learning criteria” is what you need to attack algebraic problems to the point, for example, where you do them without thinking about the “rules”, such as the order of operations. In windsurfing learning criteria gets you to the point of being upright and sailing without any conscious effort of what your limbs are doing; and in the process you may even be solving a math problem in your head – an experience much unlike your first 100 tries to get upright on your board when you had to focus every bit of your energy and you still only ended up in the drink more often than not.

Learning criteria is the access to getting “something in your bones” and at the same time, in a more up-to-date lexicon, “gives you game” or an ongoing sense of “I can do better”.  Even more so, learning criteria includes an inner awareness and means of judging your own performance where you know how to go about doing better. A good example of this at work is when Tiger Woods completely re-invented his game while he was at the height of his career and improve his performance. Clearly, he had a strong inner sense that not only could help judge where he was in game, but also gave him the know-how on how to improve his game.

A major component of learning criteria is making mistakes, but not mistakes that are seen as being something that are “wrong”. Instead, these mistakes are seen as inputs or instruments of future learning.  When learning criteria are at work it looks a lot like trail and error or just plain practicing - mistakes are being made all the time toward achieving mastery and no one is overly concerned, at least in the first stage, but later criteria becomes more about performance – “I can do better.”

While all teachers come equipped with learning criteria in the areas of their expertise, an Intuitive Teacher understands that it is not until the student can develop their own criteria that true learning takes place.  It is not enough to “tell” students about what they are learning. “Talk and chalk” just doesn’t cut it in the world of criteria building. Teachers must instead create the conditions where trial and error is the norm and there is no “right or wrong” attached to the outcome of the exercises.

Teachers wanting to embrace more intuitive practices can start by thinking about introducing more “challenges” into their teaching. In the first installment of the Intuitive Teacher we showed you how a well-crafted challenged worked to build vocabulary-building skills (insert a link).

The participates built a feeling or affinity for what it is like to develop a larger vocabulary and use it creatively in writing.  They acted as wordsmiths, editors in evaluating their own work and that of others in a group.

With challenges you start with something a student knows, and based on that, ask them to do something they don’t know.

From there, you increase the difficulty of the challenge ever so slightly bringing the student to new levels of understanding something he or she didn’t know. 

In this case, the participants began with the word “big” and created synonyms and used them in simple sentences. Then more complex sentences were created using the synonyms and finally antonyms to big were combined. 

Gattegno created approaches and materials that were specifically intended to develop criteria through trial and error methods where mistakes and errors are of no consequences except as stepping-stones to mastery of reading, mathematics and a second language, for example.  (link: www.educationalsolutions.com).

Criterion, the singular form of criteria, stems from the Greek word kreterion meaning, a “means of judgment”, which in the context we are speaking of has implications for testing in education. If students truly develop learning criteria through the use of mistakes, it would follow that testing for knowledge through assessing “mistakes and errors” would be superfluous. 

While there is a place for assessment, self-assessment becomes an automatic part of Intuitive Teaching or as Gattegno put it: the method of teaching is the same as the method of testing.

Sima Gandhi