Learning From Our Mistakes

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” – physicist Niels Bohr

I am halfway through my second book by Jonah Lehrer entitled How We Decide. In it he explores the relationship between thought and feeling in the decision making process. It has often been thought that emotions hamper the decision making process, but he argues (with the assistance of a number of studies) that our emotions are secretly working through situations where we experience disappointment to make predictions by finding patterns that lead to success. The more failures we make over time, the better we will come at predicting successful outcomes. It is our feelings that steer us in the right direction by triggering an emotional response when we’re faced with a situation that our brains have encountered before.

How do we cultivate this kind of intuitive or “emotional” wisdom? By exploring our mistakes and allowing our brains to “re-pattern” or learn from them. Lehrer writes “unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before our neurons succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process.”

Interestingly enough, he comes back to a study conducted on how we use praise conducted by Carol Dweck out of Standford University who explored the impact of praise on learning. In it she discovered that if we praise a child’s intelligence we discourage them from taking risks but if we encourage their effort, they are far more willing to take risks and in that process learn from their mistakes. Once again, I find myself in the middle of all the data that explains why we must challenge our gifted students but also having more questions about what this might mean for our highly emotional gifted students.


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