Yesterday a friend was driving me to a meeting. I hope she will forgive me for using her driving as an example of how we learn. This particular friend has just learnt to drive (at the age of 25. I didn’t learn till i was 32, so she was well ahead of me in this measure). A couple of times, as we were driving, i became aware that she was doing things that i did myself as a new driver. Once, looking over her right shoulder, she veered gently left, out of her lane. Once, she tried to gather speed to overtake a lorry on a narrowing dual carriageway, before realising that it wasn’t going to work in the space allowed.
Now, my friend, lets call her ‘Jane’ to save me being in too much trouble, is probably a better driver than me, but the interesting thing was that i remember carrying out both of these manoeuvres myself as a new driver and learning from the results. I remember recognising that when you look over one shoulder, you tend to veer the other way, and these days i correct that automatically, or am at least aware of it. I also remember clearly shaving past a car as my enthusiasm for a particular overtaking event out-shadowed my technique and horsepower.
Positive reinforcement through feedback is a key part of how we learn any skill. When i first started to work with Lino cutting as a printing method, i pushed the cutter hard into a piece of cold Lino, across which it skidded and just missed my finger: lesson learnt, luckily not too painfully.
My point here is that the mistake is not incidental to learning, it’s the cause of it. This point also struck me yesterday when talking about the assessment methodology for a particular project. I am never a fan of multi choice questions, the typical easy options for e-learning, which just tests knowledge. You’ll never learn not to veer left from a multi choice test. The only way i know if you can drive well is to be your passenger, and the only way we can know if someone has truly learnt something is to experience their revised and improved behaviour or skills.
To truly allow effective learning to take place, we don’t so much need to test for what is being done right, but rather we need to create space to make mistakes.