Sunday, April 12, 2015

Mistakes - that's how we learn what we already know

Yesterday, I was continuing the conversation I had had with Raghav the other day, about how babies learn. He had mentioned how he thought that babies learned from their mistakes, and not so much from their successes. Here was the conversation that ensued....

Me: So what do you think 'mistakes' are? When and why would you call or think of something as a mistake?

R: I think a mistake is when you do something which you think is not right.

Me: Ok. So when you think that something is not right, that means that you know or have an idea of what IS right no?

R: Yeah. You know what is right. So when you make a mistake you know that it is not right.

Me: Ok. So what is this 'right' that you are talking about? What makes you feel that something is right? Can you give me an example? Like say get very angry, frustrated or irritated when you try and write something....and you start screaming saying that that's not the way you wanted it to look, or that that is not right.

R: Yes. It is how I feel about something, or what I think about something. That it should be or look a certain way.

Me: So that is an 'opinion' right? Your opinion of how something should be or not be? Or is it that someone else told you that this is how it should look?

R: Yeah.

Me: Ok (writing the alphabet L cursive) See, what alphabet does this look like?

R: I don't know.

Me: It is an 'L' to me.

R: That does not look like an 'L' to me. (and then writes an 'L' for me like the turned handle of an umbrella) This is what 'L' is.

Me: But that looks like a half written 'U' or a 'C' to me. So see, the same thing looks different to both of us. What would happen if a person who did not know English at all came and saw this?

R: Yes. When I think of 'L', I think of it like this. He would probably not even know that it is an 'L'!

Me: So when you get irritated or upset when you are writing 'L', is it because you know what it should look like to you, but it does not come out that way when you write? And so you call it a mistake?

R: Yes. A mistake is when you do something that you didn't mean to do.

Me: Does that mean that you make a mistake when you are not thinking, or that it was something like an accident?

R: Yes.

Me: So how would you explain how babies learn by making mistakes?

R: Because they learn by trial and error. They explore things around them, make mistakes and learn.

Me: So when you said that babies learn through making mistakes, are you saying that they know what is a mistake? And if they know what is wrong, then that would mean that they already know what is right, isn't it? How do you think they would know that?

R:  I think they learn through trial and error. Like they learn to walk by first crawling around and then sitting up and then trying to stand up and then they fall down and they stand up and fall many times, before they get it right....I think they already know what walking is, and when they see their appa and amma walking around, then maybe they try to do the same thing until they get it right.

Me: Ok. So how would they learn how to speak in the same way through mistakes?

R: I think as soon as they are born, they hear all the sounds around them.....they hear people talking and all....and all those sounds go in through their ears. But in the beginning, they can't make those sounds, even though they know what they are. Then they keep trying and trying until they finally get it right.

Me: So you are saying that they keep trying till they match the sound that they make with what they have already heard or know?

R: Yes. Something like that. That is what I think.

Me: Ok. So what you call a 'mistake' is an attempt to get this 'matching' right?

R: Yes.

Me: So you are saying that they learn by 'seeing' or 'hearing'. But then what would happen to babies who are blind or deaf? How would they learn?

R: They are not born deaf and blind no? It happens later sometime to them?

Me: No, blindness and deafness can occur at birth. They can be born with that.

R: Oh! Then that would make it more complicated. But they can still learn. But I don't know how.

And then today, my sister called on skype in the afternoon. To me, it seemed like Life's way of completing this part of the conversation, and validating his thoughts in a way. Because my sister told him similar things!

I was telling him how his little brother was now making so many sounds and babbling. "Oh my! A can now make sounds to get her attention? And to ask for things that he wants?", he had said to me just a little before she called.

Raghav was all excited to see his little brother making sounds and babbling away. "He is talking so much!", he said, absolutely fascinated with what he was seeing and hearing.

"Yes, I heard what you had said about how babies learn. I think you are right you know... A learns by trial and error, by making mistakes all the time. Like now, he is crawling all over the place....yesterday he tried to go under the table, and bumped himself, and then kept trying and trying," my sister said to him.

So yes, my son gave me a few insights into what he thought was learning, and how we learn. Things that in a way flipped what I had learned about child development on its head, where the emphasis seemed to be more on success or a 'positive response' to what a baby did that facilitated learning, rather than a baby's 'failed' attempts to match or ratify what he already knew.

This conversation left me with so many questions and thoughts....and a heart that was opened a little more to love....a love for Life and its beautiful ways of bringing precious messages to us, time and again.

Perhaps 'mistakes' are how we learn what we already know.

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