Mistakes and other Signposts for Learning

There’s a lot of talk these days about mistakes.

We now know the important role mistakes have in learning. Rather than seeing mistakes as markers of limitations or inabilities, we see them as signposts for future learning. But with so much focus on mistakes, have we lost sight of other signposts?

Mistakes are often easy to recognise, so they make for useful markers. But they aren’t the only way to guide education and development. Here are six other important signposts for future learning:

1. Expert Guidance

An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” – Niels Bohr

An expert is someone who has not only made mistakes – they have learnt from them and know how to correct or avoid them. So, save yourself some time. Learn from the expert instead of repeating the same mistakes. If you do make a mistake, ask the expert how to fix it.

2. A Problem

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
– Albert Einstein

Before a mistake becomes a mistake, it’s a problem you don’t know the answer to. When we recognise a problem, we recognise a learning opportunity. Identifying what that problem is and applying our existing understanding will either yield a solution or lead to a mistake that we can use to guide our learning.

3. Inconsistencies or Incongruences

“It would be so nice if things made sense for a change.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Sometimes, things don’t seem to make sense. One set of data doesn’t match another set of data. The solution to a problem when approached from one direction changes when we approach the problem from a different direction. Recognising and analysing these inconsistencies gives us an indication of where we should guide our learning.

4. Missing the Mark

“Missing the mark is one of the ways in which we learn to hit the target.” – Eric Butterworth

Like a bull’s eye on a target, some goals have finite measures. With these goals, you know when you’ve hit the target. Falling short of a goal isn’t necessarily a failure, but it does highlight a gap where more learning is required. You need to make adjustments to close that gap in your knowledge or skills.

5. Continuous Improvement

“The enemy of the ‘best’ is often the ‘good’.” – Stephen Covey

Not everything has a finite end state. Many things can be continually improved. Simply asking, “How could this be done better?” or, “How might we further refine / extend / build upon this?”, even when what you’re doing is being done well, can reveal areas for further development.

6. Alternatives

“We may have a perfectly adequate way of doing something, but that does not mean there cannot be a better way. So we set out to find an alternative way. This is the basis of any improvement that is not fault correction or problem solving.”
– Edward de Bono

The search for alternatives, even when the current solution is working, can reveal new learning opportunities. This is not about refining a current solution, it’s about finding an entirely new one. Simply asking, “How else might this be done?” can open a whole new world of possibilities.

If we are overly focused on mistakes and “failing forward” to guide our learning and improvement, we get stuck in fault correction and problem solving. We miss a host of other powerful learning opportunities. There is more to growth than getting things wrong and learning from mistakes.

Importantly, we must recognise that all the above examples are signposts for future learning. They are not actual learning. Signposts point the way, but it’s action that results in learning. To learn and improve, we must recognise the signposts, understand what they tell us, and act on them effectively.

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