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23 February 2021

How important is it for us to be able to make errors?

  • From the Head of Junior School South Plympton

Last Friday I joined four of our Curriculum Learning Leaders (F-12) as we spent time with Dr Jared Cooney Horvath. Jared has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Melbourne and a Masters In Education in Mind, Brain & Education from Harvard University. Jared is an expert in human learning and brain stimulus. He shared: “There is one skill that will never fall out of fashion – learning. Learning is the only truly future-proof skill."

Friday was the first day of a two year Professional Learning Journey embracing an opportunity to grow in our understanding of how children learn across all Learning Areas (subjects) at school. The learning is entitled: The SOUL Project – The Science of Understanding Learning.

As Teachers we were reminded about how the brain works. God’s creation of the human brain is unbelievably intricate. To think we were made in God’s image is very humbling. Of the many things covered on the first day, there is one topic that stood out to me personally: The importance of making errors. It could be considered a strange thing to walk away reflecting on this as a highlight… In self-reflection, it emphasised the importance for us as life-long learners to continue to embrace feedback positively in our daily lives, as a response to errors. This sits so perfectly with our understanding of grace.

Many people will be aware that the pre-frontal cortex (front of your head) is the part of the brain that organises and coordinates thinking. It is the filter that takes things in, and momentarily shuts things down, so a person can decide what to continue processing. Our brain cannot take in absolutely everything, and so the brain makes decisions about what it will let through the gate, and what it will shut out.

Our brain however is not just a controller, it is also a coder. As a coder, it uses stories we are familiar with to make sense of the world. Our stories (eg our Christian Worldview) drive our coder.

When our brain is in prediction mode, we make decisions based on what we expect will happen or how we want things to happen - we are on auto pilot. We have usually experienced it before and so we predict what will happen again or how we want it to occur. It is the least time-consuming mode! It does not take any energy or time to be in prediction mode – we do not have to think, we are in ‘safe mode’. The light bulb moment is that we do not usually learn in this mode!

If we want to learn new things, we need our brain to make use of and access the coder in the pre-frontal cortex. New learning material (or new ideas) cause the coder to go off like firecrackers. However, this does not feel like safe mode! We are out of our comfort zone because someone is challenging us. It’s uncomfortable.

The Learning Process is the primary way to access the coder. The Learning Process stretches the brain:
• First way to access the coder in your brain is to learn something new
• Second way to access the coder, is to change the rules, not the difficulty (stimulates critical and creative thinking)
• Third way to access the coder, is to experience an error – this makes you focus – you go into coder ‘updating’ mode – think of a computer having an update!

Research tells us:
• Experiencing an error is the strongest way to access the coder in the brain
• Children need to be able to make errors (predictor mode does not create new learning). Once a person’s
coder is on they can choose to:
- engage with your coder (which indirectly engages with the error and embraces feedback)
- disengage with the error and shut it down. 48 hours later the brain will erase it

So what does this mean for us?

Most children will never learn to love the process that stimulates the coder. Jared Cooney Horvath described it as follows: ‘the coder mode sucks’. It is hard work. However if children do not stimulate the coder mode in their brain they will not learn – they will coast through life, or other people will constantly rescue them. Children need to stick with it, go with it. This is so closely linked to the resilience and growth mindset training we offer our children at Emmaus. Adults and children need to recognise the coder mode so it is a safe spot. If we make an error it’s okay. As Teachers and Parents, how do we build errors into things so children understand it is part of the Learning Process? Do we regularly offer feedback? Are there any times you rescue your children or do something for them, so they do not have to fail? As adults are we a permission giving community that allows mistakes across the board – with each other and with our children? Jared tells us that it is the people who embrace the feedback and learning that comes from making errors, that become the movers and shakers of society.
Resilience and bounce back are critical. As the body of Christ we are challenged to enrich our learning culture so errors are considered to be a valued part of the Learning Process. Jared reminds
us ‘It is only through failure and experiment that we learn to grow’. Feedback is critical.

What was Jesus response to errors?

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." (Matthew 18:21,22). "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing." (1 Thes 5:11)
May the Lord bless you as you join with me in self-reflection on the importance of receiving feedback, and the opportunity for learning that this creates.


Helen Vonow
Head of Junior School