Seven tools for thinking #1: Use your mistakes

“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them – especially not from yourself.” – Daniel Dennett.

I’ve been rereading the philosopher, Daniel Dennett’s wonderfully erudite manual for making and improving on mistakes, Intuition Pumps. The first – and maybe most important – of his seven tools for thinking is that we should use our mistakes*. Now, there’s a lot written in praise of mistakes and failure; some of it sensible but much of it eulogistic to the point of absurdity. Making mistakes for the sake of making mistakes is not something to be lauded, it’s just a waste of time. As Dennett makes clear, the point of a mistake is to learn from it and not to make it again.

So, is learning from mistakes natural? Something that we just do? Well, sometimes. Clearly there are times when we see students make intuitive leaps because of the level of struggle involved in trying to work on a problem. Sometimes students are shown the ‘right’ way to do something and, because of the frustration of trial and error, vow never to waste their time going about things the ‘wrong’ way again. But then there are times – more than we should be comfortable with – when students keep making the same mistakes time and again with apparently no learning taking place.

Why is this? I think the answer to this puzzler is probably twofold; it’s partly to do with the type of subject students are learning about, and partly to do with the way the mistake is processed.

When the subject domain is one in which we have probably evolved an innate capacity to learn then we tend to learn well from trial and error. These are biologically primary areas of knowledge. Watching young children learn to walk, speak and negotiate their environments is full of this kind of learning. Children make very predictable mistakes, watch the reactions and then revise their approach. Sometimes this happens because whatever they were trying to do simply didn’t work, and sometimes it’s down to correction from adults and the knowledge that even though some things might work, they’re simply ‘not done’. Here’s a selection of common grammatical mistakes which almost everyone learns are wrong and so stops making them.

Then there are biologically secondary areas of learning. It’s speculated that certain areas of human knowledge – mathematics, the physical sciences, psychology – are based on ‘folk’ versions. We all learn folk psychology (e.g. the rules of cheating) folk physics (the effects of gravity) and folk biology (understanding the differences between cats and dogs) with little or no formal instruction, but the deeper reality of science can be hard to learn because it contradicts what we intuitively know about the world.

School is full of this kind of learning. Making mistakes is commonplace and, with careful attention students will either continue to repeat their errors, or learn a process with no understanding of why they should do it that way. Because academic subjects are inherently unnatural, we can’t rely on students prior knowledge of the world to act as a useful guide. We need to explain things which otherwise wouldn’t make sense, critique and question these things, and then help them to express their own, new and improved, understanding of the world.

In English literature, for instance, understanding that writers choose words and arrange those words for particular effects isn’t something most people acquire just from learning how to communicate. Usually we just use the first words that come to mind and arrange them without much consideration. It therefore makes sense to suppose poets and playwrights do something similar and it comes as something of a shock to discover that English teachers think there are other, deeper reasons for the passages they have us read. When they ask, “What do you think the writer’s trying to say here?” we have no idea. Why wouldn’t they just say whatever they wanted to say as clearly as possible, just like we do? Asking students for an uneducated opinion is a bit unfair, because although they’ll know a lot about the world, most of what they know will be biologically primary and hence at odds with academic knowledge. We need to tell them what we, and others, think about why and how a writer might be trying to express. And then we need to get them to see that there are other, possibly better, possibilities. We need to crowbar open their certainties and show them that anything can be questioned, but only if you know enough to ask decent questions. Then, once they’ve acquired a reasonable breadth of academic knowledge and the habit of critiquing that knowledge, then we can teach them to construct analytical essays which reveal new and insightful ways to think about the written word.

This process will be littered with mistakes, blind alleys and frustration. Somewhere along the line some children seem to learn that making these mistakes is a source of shame and something to be covered up. This is, perhaps, the biggest mistake of all.

As Dennett says:

The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are. … The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it and not just another blind stab in the dark.

We have all heard the forlorn refrain “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” is standing on the threshold of brilliance.

He goes on to offer the following advice:

So when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It’s not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves), and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions. Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities to make grand mistakes, just so you can then recover from them.

Maybe good teaching is, in its purest essence, the act of allowing, encouraging and demanding the savouring of mistakes. And then setting them behind you. Maybe this act – of staring fearlessly into the heart of error and choosing to learn – is the threshold not just of brilliance, but of any brand of success.

*If you’re interested, Dennett’s seven tools for thinking are:

  1. Use your mistakes
  2. Respect your opponents
  3. Be wary of “surely”
  4. Answer rhetorical questions
  5. Employ Occam’s razor
  6. Don’t waste your time on rubbish
  7. Beware of ‘deepities’.

19 Responses to Seven tools for thinking #1: Use your mistakes

  1. You said: “Asking students for an uneducated opinion is a bit unfair, because although they’ll know a lot about the world, most of what they know will be biologically primary and hence at odds with academic knowledge. We need to tell them what we, and others, think about why and how a writer might be trying to express. ”

    I have in front of me a pile of books which suggest a variety of views which express viewpoints that differ from this e.g. ‘Exploring Talk in School’ (eds) Neil Mercer and Steve Hodgkinson; ‘Interpreting Literature with Children’ by Shelby A. Wolf. The Mercer/Hodgkinson includes people like Robin Alexander, Courtney Cazden and Gordon Wells who have produced a good deal of work in this area, drawing on theory from people like Jerome Bruner, Vygotsky, and Shirley Brice Heath.

    What do you think of all this stuff?

    • David Didau says:

      Honestly Michael, I think it’s wishful thinking. Lovely, well-intentioned and misguided. The problem with Mercer, Alexander et al is that they’re true believers. They don’t try to test or falsify their ideas, they just assume what they think is true because anything that privileges children as noble savages is good.

      I realise that’s a bit of a caricature. Obviously I’m to some of the same criticism, but I am at least prepared to set out conditions under which I would accept that I’m wrong.

      Of course I know I’m unlikely to make a dent in your beliefs but I would ask you to at least consider the fact that I taught for 15 year years thinking and believing as you do. I accepted that the reason some children (always the most disadvantaged) didn’t do well this way was because of my failings as a teacher. Then I came across an alternative view which just seemed to better describe reality.

      • 1. Mercer and Alexander “don’t try to test or falsify their ideas”? I’m not sure what would count for you as evidence. In the Mercer, I have in front of me there are transcripts of conversations between pupils and/or between pupils and teachers. Comparisons are made. Is this evidence? I haven’t got Alexander here right now, but are you saying that his work is entirely based on assertion and sentimentality?

        2. You raise the matter of the disadvantaged not doing well through dialogic approaches. That would raise the question of what evidence you have of saying this – your own observations count. But then, do you have evidence from your own observation or any other source that doing something else enables the disadvantaged to do better?

        3. Surely, in the 15 years you were using a dialogic approach, it wasn’t the only approach you were using? You had a curriculum to get through etc etc some of which could only be taught through instruction, direction, leading, teach-scaffolding etc?

        4. When looking at individual poems (not running a whole course), with e.g. primary pupils, KS3 and Sixth formers, I’ve found that the Aidan Chambers’ approach – which I’ve adapted, including some modelling by me – has produced at the very least, discoveries and insights by all levels of pupil. One example, looking at ‘I, too sing America’, with no input from me about poet or poem, and going via the students’ own experience as a prism for interpreting the poem, they arrived at one pupil saying (with absolutely no prompt from me): ‘This is like MLK’s “I had a dream” speech!’. This then formed the basis for a conversation about why that might be. This was a group of white KS3 pupils from a non-selective school in Newham. I don’t know their exact background, but judging from their speech alone, these weren’t pupils from a privileged or ‘middle class’ background.

        • David Didau says:

          You see: I knew nothing I wrote would cause you to doubt yourself 🙂

          1. Transcripts of conversations are not useful evidence. I like much of what Mercer & Alexander write but yes, pretty mush all “assertion and sentimentality”.
          2. Yes. Explicit teaching, followed by critique seems, in my own observations, to provide for much better results.
          3. Dialogic, when you strip it down to basics, just means having dialogue. The explicit teaching I refer to above is entirely dependent on dialogue. In fact, all teaching is pretty much dependent on dialogue. It just assumes that dialogues will be better if based on informed opinion. Not sure why you would dispute this.
          4. As Hattie makes clear in Visible Learning, everything works. I don’t doubt that you can prompt some insights “with no input” from yourself, but think how much more efficient this process might be if based on the critique of informed opinion.

          • I wonder if we could strip out the personal comments from this conversation? You constantly asserting that I wouldn’t doubt myself doesn’t actually help this particular thread ,does it? As it happens, whether at home with my children or in schools or with my own MA students, I can see that I adopt a ‘mixed method’ in which some of the time there is instruction and modelling coming from me, there is direction towards texts that are themselves instructing and modelling and at other times, there are open-ended conversations between two, three or four pupils. So, you telling me what kind of education I’m in favour of doesn’t really advance things, does it?

          • David Didau says:

            If you want to strip out personal comments then making personal comments probably isn’t the way to go. But, I’m willing to let it go.

          • On your first point, the reason why people like Brice Heath, Barnes, Alexander, Mercer, Snell and many others use transcripts is because they want to show differences between different kinds of conversations. Apart from anything else, some want to show differences in how students articulate what they know, what they don’t know and what they want to know. They also try to make comparisons between those conversations where teachers intervene (in a variety of ways) and those where they don’t. Apart from anything else, this is a component of assessment for learning/formative assessment – or at least some forms of it.

            re dialogic – I’m not sure that all teaching is dependent on dialogue. In the 1950s in a grammar school quite a bit of it was not dialogic e.g. some geography and history teachers. They just talked in half hour stretches in what were supposed to be helpful ways. Some of us clocked it, some of us didn’t. And we were the ‘top third’ post 11-plus.

          • David Didau says:

            I understand why researchers use transcripts. If you want to see them used well I can recommend the research of Graham Nuthall.

            I’m not sure generalising from your personal experience in the 1950s is all that useful. I doubt many teachers would recognise the experience you describe. If you can’t accept that all teaching is dialogue (absolutes are of course always dubious) then perhaps you could accept that the vast majority of teaching is dialogue – certainly in the longer term?

        • David Didau says:

          I think it’s interesting. But it doesn’t provide anything in the way of empirical evidence that children are best discovering things for themselves.

  2. Mark says:

    So, so well thought through and damn useful after looking for a real thinking framework rather than the old no failure only feedback quip. Also watched HYPERLINK “” which added another interesting perspective.

    Mud clearing from water means it must be wine o’clock.

  3. As a scientist this does feel like a no brainer, but I am also aware that my training has taught me that intuition is probably wrong, and that each situation (usually a failed experiment) needs careful thought and a new hypothesis to be tested in the lab again. I have also been taught (and experienced) that odd observations (whether mistakes or something else) often lead to scientific progress, if carefully considered. Science experiments are also hard to do, and mistakes are inevitable……recovering from them leads to something I used to call ‘lab fitness’, which was a way of behaving in the lab which led to less mistakes (but could easily be lost again after a holiday, and needed to be relearned).

  4. Here is the news of what Alexander et al are doing according to someone who wrote to me:

    “Robin Alexander and Frank Hardman at York are currently engaged in an EEF project investigating dialogic teaching in urban areas to try and answer some of this [matter of whether the disadvantaged do or do not gain anything from the dialogic approach. Also Neil Mercer, Christine Howe and Sara Hennessy at Cambridge are looking at the impact of exploratory talk in primary classrooms through an ESRC grant. We should always be asking, ‘who benefits, and why?’. Neil has some interesting thoughts about which children in which schools get to engage in argumentation and discussion and how this sets them up for the future.”

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