What’s the value of a mistake?

On its own, a mistake has no value.

The value and learning potential come not from the mistake itself, but from the way we act on it. To achieve learning and extract value from a mistake, we must follow psychologist Anders Ericsson’s 3 Fs:

Focus: To recognise a learning opportunity.
Feedback: To understand what the learning opportunity says we must learn.
Fix It: Take action to correct the mistake.

1. Focus

If a mistake occurs and nobody notices, is it still a mistake?

Yes, it is, but it’s a learning opportunity lost. The mistake itself is not a learning opportunity – it’s our ability to recognise it as a learning opportunity that makes it so.

To recognise a learning opportunity, we need a clear understanding of what our goal looks like. We also need to see that where we are now is not our goal.

Imagine driving north on a freeway. There’s a sign that says to reach your destination, you need to take the next left. But you’re not paying attention and miss the sign. You’ve never been here before, so you don’t know which direction you should be traveling. Having missed the sign and with no other obvious markers, you continue driving, not knowing you are heading in the wrong direction.

This demonstrates why the use of exemplars, or clear rubrics, key performance indicators, and well-defined goals are so important. They give us a clear understanding of what we are trying to achieve, in what direction we should be heading and in what direction we are going.

2. Feedback

If a mistake occurs and we don’t know what it tells us, is it still a learning opportunity?

No. For a mistake to be useful, we need to extract from it information – feedback – that guides us towards new action.

This requires us to have accurate knowledge of our current state compared to our goal. We also must be able to extract information that helps guide our actions to get us from one state to the other. We need to make a plan of action.

Without this ability to compare, draw a path between desired and actual states, and plan our actions, we are lost. The signpost is there, but we don’t know which way it’s pointing.

Let’s go back to our freeway scenario. After missing your turnoff, you arrive at the next town. This town is further north than your intended destination. The important information is not only that you’re in the wrong town (the mistake), but that the town is to the north of your destination. To get to your goal, you need to head south.

This is when an expert, someone who’s experienced it before, is so helpful in guiding our learning. An expert can discern the error and the course of action required to correct it. In the absence of an expert, we need to have clear and helpful criteria about our current and goal states, as well as strategies to move from one to the other.

This is also why our goals should be set just beyond our current abilities. Too far beyond, and the path between our current state and our goal state may be too large to plan an effective course of action.

3. Fix It

Is a learning opportunity the same as learning?

No. For a learning opportunity to become learning, you must take action to attempt to fix the mistake. Simply knowing you’re not where you want to be and thinking you know the way there is not enough. For learning to have taken place you need to have fixed the mistake, and change your behaviour.

Having identified a possible course of action, you must modify your actions and test your theory. The result will either be that your plan of action is accurate and you arrive at your goal, or that your plan of action is incorrect, in which case you need to detect and act upon the signposts for future learning.

On our imaginary road trip, this might mean that you decide to turn around and head back down the freeway. This time, you’ll either see the turnoff to your destination (if you’re paying close enough attention) or arrive back at a town further south of your destination, in which case you’ll have new information telling you that you need to re-evaluate your strategy for detecting turnoffs!

Having arrived at our new destination – either our goal or a new signpost – we need to repeat the Focus, Feedback and Fix It process, sometimes many times over. Each time, we must set new goals, measure our progress and take action. In this way, we respond effectively to the learning opportunities around us and achieve continuous growth.

Learning is not about making mistakes. Learning is about detecting signposts for learning. It is about understanding what those signposts tell us. And it is about acting upon what those signposts tell us so we can modify our actions, learn and grow.

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