To err…

Alina Tugend, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011.

…at some point he had to learn by failing. If I had saved him, what kind of adult would he be? What kind of employee would he be? – p. 61

I don’t like making mistakes. It is a character flaw of mine that creates problems when I project my lack of comfort with mistakes on others – not the easiest issue to have when raising children either, but we generally make do. New York Times columnist Alina Tugend suggests I might learn a thing or two or three from letting go and making a mistake, then learning myself up something from the experience.

Tugend wonders why people instinctively feel the need to cover up mistakes when, in fact, quite a bit of positive development can occur when these mistakes are recognized and analyzed. In working with budding teachers, I discuss the value of mistakes all the time. We point out throughout the undergraduate experience, “you will make mistakes, you will improve because of them.” This fact may be observed in terms of lesson plans, time management, lecture material, classroom management – in short, the breadth of the teaching experience! Tugend emphasizes some similar points throughout the book, particularly in chapters 2 and 7. On a related point, the seventh chapter explores how cultural differences make educators approach mistakes by students in different ways – is process more important than the final grade? I hope that both can be important, but I have to concur that process is vital as it serves as a building block for learning.

I appreciate that Tugend begins the text with an attempt at defining what is meant by error. She uses dictionaries, academics, and business people. Important too is the observation that while misjudgment or a failure of a planned sequence might help define mistakes, it was the consequence s which made a difference (9-11). It is consequence that often determines our reaction to the mistake, but it is also here where humans struggle the most. How to react when the mistake may appear large but the consequence is, in reality, quite small, is a skill I would argue. Tugend explores how people deal with the consequences in a variety of situations.

While Tugend points out that not every error can be a corrective, she tends to focus on those that have some positive outcomes in Better. Her examples in chapter four on medical mistakes are illustrative, particularly the suggestions from Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist. Pronovost wanted a simple checklist used by doctors to minimize the risk of infections, particularly for patients receiving catheters. As Tugend explains, he worked hard to give people ideas about the steps they needed to take, a study of the results of taking the steps, and a push to change the culture. We do some similar work in teaching, particularly in terms of the latter issue.

Give Better a read to “better” understand how we make errors and deal with them, but also to get you thinking about whether little mistakes, in the end, add up to much.

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