On Error

Posted on August 4, 2013


 Years ago, I picked up James Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse (1968), and it changed the way I taught writing–and, well, pretty much everything. Here, in a favorite passage of mine, Moffett discusses the importance of trial-and-error learning.

Now, trial and error sounds to many people like a haphazard, time-consuming business, a random behavior of children, animals, and others who don’t know any better. (Of course, by “random” we usually mean that we the observers are ignorant of the reasons for the behavior.) Trial and error is by definition never aimless, but without help the individual alone may not think of all the kinds of trials that are possible, or may not always see how to learn the most from his errors. And if it is a social activity he is learning, like writing, then human interaction is in any case indispensable. So we have teachers to propose meaningful trials (assignments) in a meaningful order, and to arrange for a feedback that insures the maximum exploitation of error.

The second implication is that the teacher does not try to prevent to learner from making errors. He does not preteach the problems and the solutions (and of course by “errors” I mean failures of vision, judgment, and technique, not mere mechanics). The learner simply plunges into the assignment, uses all his resources, makes errors where he must, and heeds the feedback. In this action-response learning, errors are valuable; they are the essential learning instrument. They are not despised or penalized. Inevitably, the child who is afraid to make mistakes is a retarded learner, no matter what the activity in question (p. 199).

“Afraid to make mistakes” indeed describes a good many of my students. If I were to describe the other large (perhaps larger) portion it would be “indifferent to mistakes.” Not indifferent because they’re apathetic wastoids or something; indifferent because they have never been given a reason to pay attention to the possibility of errors.

Moffett distinguishes between the above view (what he calls “the exploitation of error”) with what most students are familiar with: having good and bad ways of doing something laid out before them, and keeping these good and bad ways in mind as they work (what he calls “the avoidance of error”). The difference between these two approaches, says Moffett, is the difference “between looking over your shoulder and looking where you are going.”

The tricky part, for me anyway, has always been figuring how best to facilitate this sort of learning. Moffett is pretty casual when he describes the teacher’s job as proposing “meaningful trials in a meaningful order.” (That’s easy, right? Make it meaningful. Okay: will do.) But that’s perhaps another post.

Note: As the school year looms, and I begin planning the year, I like to browse my library–revisiting books that have shaped my teaching practice, searching out my margin notes, re-reading favorite passages. Call it straightening my theoretical frames if you like. This is the first of several posts of this nature.