I’m not a supporter of the ‘learning from mistakes’ theory of education, indeed I often feel that it is not possible for people to learn from mistakes. What I’d like to do here is to draw a distinction between a ‘trial and error’ approach to learning and ‘learning from mistakes’. I’ll also try to add some of the problems I see in the ‘learning from mistakes’ theory.
In adopting a ‘trial and error’ approach, you are admitting from the outset that you do not have the answer. Furthermore, you are accepting that some of the answers you put forward may not be correct and that you are prepared to consider alternative possibilities to find a solution.
The opposite would be the case if you were having to ‘learn from a mistake’. At the outset you felt you did have the answer but that has been shown to be wrong. Because you felt you had the answer, you were probably neither prepared for the setback nor ready to consider alternative solutions.
As a child if a teacher tells you ‘I hope you learn from this mistake.’ basically they are saying ‘Don’t do that again.’. In other words, it’s an admonition; a warning not to do it again. It does not indicate what you can do, just what you cannot do.
This seems to illustrate the basic flaw in the Learning from Mistakes theory, it doesn’t give us an indication of what’s right, only what’s wrong. If we accept that learning is about finding a right answer, then Learning from Mistakes lets us down in that it only indicates wrong answers and does that without any indication of a right answer.
It would be very easy if all decisions in life came down to a choice of two possible answers; one right and one wrong. If we made a mistake by choosing the wrong answer, then we’d learn that the other answer was correct. In such a way, we could learn from our mistakes. Sadly, however, very few decisions in life come down to a choice of either A or B.
If our chosen solution was a wrong one, we have to decide whether it was wrong on this occasion only and whether we should try the same solution again. Furthermore, if we are given no indication as to why our chosen solution was wrong or no indication of possible alternatives, they we have little choice but to try the same solution again or give up.
Maybe that is why people often appear not to learn from mistakes and, indeed, seem to make the same mistake over and over again. Trying to learn from mistakes does not always give you an indication why a solution failed or insight into alternatives.
A ‘trial and error’ approach leaves you open to consider alternative possibilities and an acceptance that a solution might not work, you accept that you do not have the answer and might be more open to help and cooperation from other people. This situation of not knowing an answer is something that young people often experience and accept as part of learning. As we become adult, however, we increasingly experience situations in which we do, or feel we do, know that answer. We may tend, therefore, to close ourselves to alternative possibilities (by not realising that there may be alternatives) and to help from others (by not realising that we may need help from others). As adults, we seem to become more autonomous in our learning and less collaborative, indeed collaboration is often aligned with cheating.
One further problem with mistakes is that making a mistake is often linked to failure. A person who makes a mistake may come to feel that they have failed. If that person carries on making mistake after mistake or the same mistake again and again, then they risk that failure become internalised and the person starts to feel a failure in themselves. At which point we have a potentially more serious problem in terms of self-esteem issues, personality problems and disengagement from learning.