Mistakes are a learner’s best friend (Augie, me, and scientific thinking)

            Imagine me and Augie.

I sit by you.

            Augie is my sister’s dog, but I’m very fond of him.
            — It’s probably a good thing he’s my sister’s dog and not mine, because if he were mine, he would be really spoiled. I just can’t resist him.
            Anyway, imagine Augie and I spending the day together. I’m sitting quietly, trying to write an essay, but Augie is whining.
            So I wonder, is he hungry? I put my laptop down, go into the kitchen, add some fresh dog food to his dish. He comes with me, but no, that isn’t what he wants.
            Is he thirsty, then? I change the water in his bowl. Augie gives the water and appreciative lap, but no, that also isn’t it. He’s still whining.
            Does he need to go out and do his duty? I hold open the door to the backyard. This gets me a wag of that gorgeous, fluffy tail, and a slightly hopeful look, but still — he stays where he is. That really isn’t it, either.
            “Augie, where is your football?” I finally ask him.
            Bark! he says happily, dashes into the living room, slides across the laminate floor, his toenails clicking. He comes back with the squeaky yellow football in his mouth. We’re going to play football! I can hear him cheering as he leaps ahead of me out the door. Yaaaaaaaaaaay!!
            This is pretty typical of our time together. Augie sits with me while I write, occasionally licking me, occasionally having a snooze, and in general biding his time until he can remind me to take a break and do what’s really important: go for walks and play football!
            But this is also an example of how people solve problems — how people learn. Augie can’t tell me in words what he needs, so I have to form the questions to ask him — and I ask him those questions by making little experiments. I ask him if he’s hungry by giving him some more dog food and seeing if it makes him content. If not, I try something else. (My sister can probably just ask him if he’s hungry, and he could recognize the words, but I’m not always that bright.)
            You do this type of problem solving and learning all the time. Have you ever tried to take care of an infant? Or tried to get your game console to start up when it won’t? How about, have you tried to figure out why the cake you made was a total flop? Or even, have you tried to figure out why your boyfriend or girlfriend was mad at you? (That can be really hard, eh!)

You write a long time.

            These are all examples of situations in which you have to look at what’s in front of you, make guesses as to what’s going on, and create tests that will help you figure out whether you guessed right or not. Is the baby hungry, tired, sick, lonely? Are the game console’s cables all attached correctly, are the settings all correct, and — ugh — is it plugged in? Did you leave the baking powder out of the cake, or the salt, or was the temperature of the oven not correct?
            (I’m not even going to guess why your boyfriend or girlfriend is mad at you. 🙂 )
            I’m sure that if you take a minute, you can think of a situation in which you used this type of thinking to solve a problem or figure something out. … So, what did you think of? … (Really! I want you to think of one! Take just a minute and come up with your own example. You can post it as a comment here, if you want to! That would be fun.)
            Not only do we figure things out in our everyday lives this way; this type of thinking is also the basis of science. Making guesses as to what’s going on and how things work, and then making tests to see whether we are correct, is the basis of both doing science and learning science. Once we find out how things work, we can make new medical interventions that can help people feel well; we can make bridges that can span vast distances and support thousands of tons; we can make enzymes to help clean up environmental disasters; we can even create political solutions that can lead to a peaceful, prosperous world. (Politics isn’t an earth science, but it’s definitely problem solving!)
            I’m sure you recognize this questioning and testing as the basic thought process of science, at least intuitively. But let’s look at a couple of other insights into doing and learning science that we can glean from the analogy of Augie and me.
            A focus on solving problems
            When I realize that Augie is whining, and that there is a problem, I just leap right in and try to solve this problem. Augie is one of my best buds, and I want him to be comfortable! So I leap right in and start working through my list of ideas, starting with my best guess — the most plausible explanation. If my first guess turned out to be effective — Augie was hungry — then that’s great. Augie can settle into a nap, and I can settle back into writing. But if my guess wasn’t correct — Augie wasn’t hungry — I just move on to my next guess and test that. Eventually, hopefully, I will figure out what he needs.

Have any treats?

            As I’m doing my tests, working my way sequentially through them, I don’t think of any particular test as an issue of success or failure. If Augie wasn’t hungry, that doesn’t mean that I “failed” — it just means he wasn’t hungry. (Yes, I’m sure I gave him his breakfast that morning, so I didn’t fail in that regard, either! 🙂 )
            And when I’m trying to figure out what Augie needs, I don’t choose my tests based on whether or not I think I will “succeed” or “fail,” or whether “failing” will make me look silly, or upset my teacher, or whatever. I’m just focused on taking care of Augie — I’m just focused on solving the problem, on figuring out what is going on. If I’ve got a guess as to what it is, I’m going to try it. No other questions asked. How else could I figure it out? I’ve just got to make guesses and try them. (Hopefully, I’ve got some experience with dogs in general and with Augie in particular, so that I can make guesses well suited to the situation, but still, all my tests are just guesses.)
            The same dynamics are true in scientific situations — in the lab, in the field, in the prototyping studio, and in the classroom. When there is a problem before us that needs solved, the only way to make progress is to make those guesses (hopefully educated guesses) and try them out. Yes, our first guesses may not be accurate. We may not guess correctly at first what is actually going on. But that just means that we learned one thing that wasn’t the problem, and so we go on to our next idea and try that.
            Asking questions, trying ideas, testing solutions and hypotheses, are the only way to eventually figure out what we’ve really got, how it works, how to solve the problem, how to make things better. In this context, the only failure is to stop asking, to stop trying. An attempted solution that doesn’t pan out is not a failure: it’s a step of learning. There is no failure in the path of learning, except to give up.
            If I gave up trying to figure out what Augie needed, he would have to whine until my sister got home. And then neither of us would be happy. All afternoon. Ugh!
            There are, of course, more serious situations of problem solving than Augie and I negotiating playing football. If you were taking care of an infant, you would never give up trying to figure out what the little one needed, would you? Never.
            Working together
            This brings us to another point. What if you can’t figure it out? What if I’ve tried everything I can think of, offered it to Augie, and he’s still distraught? Seriously distraught? And what if the clock is ticking? (What if he’s sick or injured, and not just bored?) You guessed it. If I can’t figure it out, I would take Augie to the vet, and ask the veterinarian to help me.


            This is how science works, too. It’s valuable to work through a puzzle on your own, to see what your own resources are for solving the problem. But after you’ve worked on it, if you can’t figure it out, it’s okay to ask for help — to ask someone to cooperate with you.
            This is actually how many scientific breakthroughs are made: by teams of people working together, brainstorming new possibilities and ways to test them out. If you’d like to learn more about this, have a look at Jonah Lehrer’s article “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up.” In the article, Lehrer describes a study by Kevin Dunbar into the workings of science laboratories. He found that solutions to scientific problems emerged not in a lone scientist’s head, but in meetings, often with participants from diverse scientific fields — and often when they were trying to get through a situation that looked like a complete failure.
            Take a break
            This brings up another point about not being able to figure something out. If the problem is not an emergency (Augie’s example may not be helpful here, since he thinks that football is always an emergency), then sleep on it. At least set it aside. Research has shown that an “incubation” period helps people to integrate information and to solve problems creatively. (Good jumping-off points for more information on this are the Wikipedia’s page on Incubation (Psychology) and a page called “Problem Solving and Mental Incubation,” hosted on the University of Michigan’s website.)
            So if you’ve struggled with a problem for a while, and just can’t solve it, you may find that once you take a break, do something else, take your mind completely off it for a while, even have a nap or a good night’s sleep, you may find yourself able to solve it when you come back to it. Almost like magic.
            — It’s only almost like magic, since you still have to put in your effort to learn the principles involved and the information that’s relevant. You still have to make a good faith effort to find a solution, so that your brain has the puzzle pieces to play with while you rest.
            So if you’re working on a problem, and can’t figure it out, even this doesn’t mean you have failed. It just means that you didn’t figure it out right now. Be willing to come back and try it again later. Keep trying, keep learning, and later on, it just might work.


            Your own knowledge
             There is one final question. And that question is, “Does it matter if I figure this out? What difference does it make if I figure this out?”
            This question is easier to ask in a classroom situation rather than in the field. If Augie is looking at me desperately, and my sister is away, then I must figure it out. It matters. And if you’re the one in charge of taking care of another person or a serious situation, then it obviously matters.
            But when you’re sitting in your room, or in the library, beating your head over a set of problems in text book, or beating your mouse against a set of problems on a course website, it can be easier to think that it doesn’t matter. It can be easier to think that you don’t matter, in this context. You might think, All the instructors and the people who wrote the textbook have already figured it out anyway, haven’t they? And it was probably way easier for them than it is for me.
            You do matter. Someday, you may be the one that brings this knowledge to the group. You may be part of a team trying to clean up an environmental mess, trying to save a forest, trying to heal an injured animal, trying to help deliver a baby, trying to bring peace to a nation or a family or an individual. What you understand about how the world works, in all its varied arenas, will help you play your role in that world. It will help you make a difference.
            And yes, your instructors and the people who put together textbooks and websites probably already know the answers to the exercises they created for you. But learning that knowledge wasn’t any easier for them than it is for you. They stayed up late, got up early, worked while others seemed to be playing, while at other times they gave it a rest and then came back later and tried some more. They asked for help, helped others, and worked together with others. A lot. The textbooks and other educational materials they make now are their way of trying to make your learning easier. They’re trying to guide your learning as best they can.

Please please please can we play football now?

            So the question to ask yourself as you’re studying is, “What do I know about this? Yes, my instructors know something about it, but what do I know?” You can explore your own understanding in the same way that you would explore a puzzle outside yourself: You can test your own knowledge. Trying to solve a problem in a textbook is a good example. If you can solve it, then that’s good evidence that you understand the principles the problem covers. If you don’t get the right answer to the problem, or don’t even have an idea how to begin working on it, that’s good evidence that you’re missing something in your knowledge.
            Once you’ve found you’re missing a piece of knowledge, the next step is to figure out what that piece is. You can ask something like, “What might help me solve this problem? What principle or strategy or fact might be relevant to this problem?” You can look back through the chapter, see if you find anything, give those ideas a try. You can look for similar problems in the chapter, see if they give you a hint. You can call a friend, see if they were able to solve it, and ask them how. You can go to a study session or go to your instructor’s office hours and ask them to help you find what you’re missing, see what ideas they have.
            So you can see that even in the context of working your way through study problems, not being able to solve a particular problem is not a failure. Not being able to solve a problem just shows you what you have yet to learn. This is excellent information. This will help you choose what to study next, so that you can use your study time most efficiently — so that you can learn as much as you can in the time you have. Realizing what you need to learn next will enable you to most effectively solve the problems that life brings you; it will enable you to help.
            You can do it!
            So jump right in! Ask for problems to solve, whether in the classroom, in the lab, or in our beautiful world. Think of a solution, and give it a try. If it doesn’t work, then go right on to your next idea and test that, and so on. Eventually, through working diligently, checking the existing knowledge, and cooperating with others, you will find a solution to every problem.
            The world needs you. We need your unique talents, your energy, your contribution. So don’t be afraid to not get something right. A “failure” is actually just information that points you toward what you need to learn next. Without this information, we really wouldn’t get anywhere as individuals, as families, or as a world. We need to acknowledge what doesn’t work, so that we can go on and try something else.
            Learning in this way, we can make our world a better place. So jump right in! May you make the most of your mistakes, and in this way, learn what really does work.

That was fun!

            Lehrer, J. (2009). “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up.” Wired Magazine, December 21. http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/12/fail_accept_defeat/
            Wikipedia’s page on Incubation (Psychology). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incubation_%28psychology%29
            “Problem Solving and Mental Incubation,” hosted on the University of Michigan’s website. http://www.umich.edu/~bcalab/problemsolving.html



  1. Sarah, cleverly written, and very entertaining. You’re a gem. I’ll be referring students back to this article. Please let me know if I can ever return the favor.

    Kindest Regards,

    1. Hi, Joseph!

      I’m glad you like the essay! I was hoping that the ideas in it would approach your students concerns. I was going to send the essay’s link to you today — I posted it first for review by a few friends, and then I needed to receive permission to use the photos. I think we’re good to go, now!

      Once again, thank you for your devoted work with your students. Education is the most pressing issue of our time — if it ever wasn’t the most pressing issue! I wish you and your students all the best!

      Warmest greetings,

    2. I did think of something… I would enjoy knowing how your students respond to Augie and my example. If it helps them look differently at the process of making mistakes, I would like to know. If their actual concern is something else, and the essay doesn’t help, I would like to know that, too. Feedback will help me learn, too! 🙂

      Have a nice day!


      1. Sarah,

        I’ll be certain to ask them, and will get back to you. Again, thanks so much for doing this.

        Kindest Regards,

  2. Sarah, the article you wrote had a good effect on students. I believe it really resonated with one in particular. I like the way you approached the topic by “flying in uder the radar screen.” I believe that was a very helpful feature!

    1. I’m so glad! [many smiles] I’m delighted in particular to hear that the indirect approach might have been helpful — I chose the writing style to try setting up a “world” in which a student could feel the perspective before noticing that they had done so — a world in which they could find themselves already knowing that mistakes are part of a very important process that they already do in other parts of their life. Yay!

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