Optimal Brain Development Requires Being Wrong a Lot

by Rick on May 15, 2013

To "listen with the ear of your heart" means to listen with a willingness to change.

To “listen with the ear of your heart” means to listen with a willingness to change. 

–Tim Molak


Vibrato: The Secret of Getting it Right

Jonah, age two, stood at the block table in the Frick Museum in Nashville piling up blocks trying one combination after another. It looked like he was playing “Blockhead,” except that rather than piling them up one at a time, he held two blocks together, then tried to put them on top of the first stack of two. He tried all different combinations of shapes—two rectangles end to end, a square and a triangle, a flat and a cylinder, and so on.

What neural networks was he building?What neural networks was he building? Did he have a vision? Was he exploring the properties of each shape? Was he working on his eye-hand coordination? Was he exploring the relationship between the geometric center of an object and its center of gravity? From watching children over the years my guess is: “all of the above.”

One thing was obvious: his brain loved those blocks. He worked for half-an-hour—long past when his parents were done with blocks and ready to move on to the next activity.

I wanted to help. As an experienced block builder, I could have told him that this two-at-a-time method was the hard way of building something. I could have shown him how to put one on top of the other carefully so that the base was more stable. I could have explained that to be stable the center of gravity has to be below the geometric center. But even I am not that stupid. The challenge he had set for himself was driven by inner neurological necessity. He was going for something, and I was smart enough not to presume to know what it was. I just watched.

It can be frustrating for a father to watch his son try to do something. From an adult point of view we are presiding over failure after failure. But if the goal is to build strong brains, we simply must let the brain direct the project.

Life for humans is effort and error.

At four in the morning Barbara lies in her bed going over and over all six of the ways she tried and failed to get Johnny to learn that 25 – 16 = 9. That same morning Mark, the principal, can’t get back to sleep thinking about the sexist thing the top candidate for third grade teacher said in his office the day before. writer_s block - Google SearchBarry sits at his typewriter staring at the words on the paper in front of him.

They all realize they made a mistake somewhere.

How well these four people do in life depends in large part on their attitude toward mistakes. Barbara was considering calling the parents in to discuss Johnny’s difficulties and to recommend a thorough psycho-educational evaluation. Mark was considering hiring the teacher, anyway. Barry was about to rip the paper out and start again. Jonah? Right. He didn’t have a problem. He was doing research on the world and building his brain. To a scientist a wrong answer is as interesting as a right answer. Each one provides the same amount of data.

An expert violinist puts her finger on a string, presses it to the sounding board and draws the bow over the string. She does not expect that the finger is in the perfect place; for she knows that making the right sound requires vibrating the finger above and below the correct string length many times a second. It’s called vibrato. Similarly, good decision-making is not a set of one-shot actions, but a vibrato of a series of decisions.

Life for humans is effort and error. No matter how good one gets one still makes mistakes. Achievement isn’t getting it right; it’s successive approximation, like the musical concept of vibrato when you are trying to hit a note. Paradoxically, all four people get better results when they realize that the name of the game is building a brain.

The next day Barbara tried something new. She asked Johnny to explain his decision making process to her. He showed her how he would do 25-16 and came up with 9. Even though it seemed circuitous to her, she congratulated him on showing her a new way. Johnny then proceeded to do a whole worksheet of double-digit subtraction. “Excellent,” said Barbara. We are going to call this the Johnny method.”

Mark once said to me: “I was half-way through my second year as principal, when I finally understood what my job was. People aren’t counting on me to be right; they are counting on me to make decisions. As soon as I realized that, I had the job knocked: just make decisions. If I make a wrong decision, guess what; I make another decision, and then another and another. A mistake is simply an opportunity to make another decision. The trick is knowing when and how to change your mind.”

A mistake is simply an opportunity to make another decision. The trick is knowing when and how to change your mind.

This time Mark decided not to hire the teacher but to continue the search even though the rest of the hiring committee loved the candidate. He decided to turn hiring a teacher into an opportunity for him to communicate where he stood on a critical diversity issue.

Barry ripped out the paper and started over again.

Creating, teaching, leading, and writing all have one thing in common: what is critical is not the number of errors but the number of trials.

Creating, teaching, leading, and writing all have one thing in common: what is critical is not the number of errors but the number of trials.


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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Deborah McNelis May 16, 2013 at 5:54 am

The example of the boy building with blocks is perfect Rick! Every adult needs to realize this is how real learning and optimal brain development happens!
This story is excellently explains all this child is gaining through this experience. And how his experimenting is an extremely richer way of learning than being taught by someone or learning on paper or a screen! The valuable brain connections and understanding he gained in through building himself could never be developed in any other way.
I certainly will be sharing this post!!

Katherine Gordy Levine May 16, 2013 at 7:59 am

Great article. Pinned it on my Birth to Six Tips Board. http://pinterest.com/pin/147141112798188250 Stay strong, we all need to work at it, young and old.

Rick May 16, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Thank you both.

Kerstin Schmidt May 16, 2013 at 6:27 pm

It strikes me that we are a culture that is not very practiced at making mistakes. Or, rather, I think we are challenged to accept that mistakes are okay and part of being human. The important thing is that we learn to take responsibility for our missteps, work to recognize what the problem is, then make an effort to fix it. I really like your phrase, “A mistake is simply an opportunity to make another decision.”

Rick May 16, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Most biographies (Lincoln, Grant, Churchill, Eleanor R, Jobs, etc, etc, are stories of people who got it wrong again and again until they got it right. Straight A students do not have a monopoly on success out of school.–at all. One hypothesis: they got no practice failing.

Marty Dutcher May 17, 2013 at 4:27 am

Super post, Rick. Young children seem to have an advantage over us in their learning: they are not trying to do anything the “right” way, they are trying to get something to “work.” “Wrong” doesn’t occur to them until we immerse them in it as parents, and then school takes over more fear and punishment added to making mistakes. This is the biggest issue in our parenting and the biggest barrier to learning in our schooling, in my view: trying to do it right, and fear of making mistakes with our children. And of course we’d feel that way – our children are so loved. It is about building our brains, I like that.

Dawn May 17, 2013 at 2:04 pm

I love how you presented this information in an easy to understand way! I believe child care educators need this knowledge to provide the best care.
May I copy this article on Brain Development for training purposes in our child care association?

Rick May 17, 2013 at 5:42 pm

absolutely, Dawn.

Jan May 17, 2013 at 9:19 pm

I’ve often wondered what I did right to generate kids with such amazing minds and capabilities. Your article leads me to be that all the watches, radios, toys that were dismantled and sort of put back together were part of the reason. I thought that drove me crazy, but it just made him smart. The days at the sewing machine, unpicking as many seams as they sewed must have built some brain cells. I was thinking I should have helped more; but apparently they learned about a lot more than seams. I feel good.

Rick May 19, 2013 at 9:25 am

good. sounds like you should.

Ariadne May 19, 2013 at 3:07 pm

this post is fantastic, I absolutely love the reference to vibrato having studied music for 15+ years it made so much sense. As a parent, I find accepting mistakes as part of the process of growing changes our perspective on everything parenting/guiding! I wrote recently about the importance of letting children make choices, including choices that lead to mistakes, so I will link back here as another resource for sure!

Rick May 20, 2013 at 8:07 am

Thank, Ariadne. You might like this thing I wrote about choice: http://geniusinchildren.org/2010/08/18/choosing/
PS. It seems you are busy living up to your name!

Lina May 20, 2013 at 8:23 am

This is such a great reminder to us all.. to allow opportunities for our children to make mistakes and to be accepting of ourselves when we make mistakes.. and not being afraid to do so!

Dale May 23, 2013 at 9:08 am

You seem tireless in your efforts to help us see learning more clearly. Thank you. This principle reminds me of a book I read long ago called Psyco Cybernetics written by Maltz. He explained that our goal seeking is much like that of a torpedo, off target most of the time. However, as we continually struggle and make adjustments we eventually end up where we had intended to go. As you stated in another post … mistakes and failure are a very natural and important part of progress. Ask the child learning to walk, or tie his shoes.

Wayne Jones December 12, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Wonderful examples that readers can relate to quickly and easily. As a retired principal, I do, however, question the comment that Mark (the second year principal) made about people counting on him to make decisions, not counting on him to be right. In my experience, I was entrusted with leadership that was both forward-thinking and correct, based on evidence, research and experience.

memory truly March 7, 2015 at 12:44 pm

It’s hard to come by experienced people on this topic, but
you sound like you know what you’re talking about!

Anne Marie Schar May 1, 2017 at 3:39 pm

This is a great piece and ditto comments above. My question is this, given that I agree with this and thought that I was allowing my child to make mistakes, be wrong, and do it her own way, why is she frozen with fear in the 4th grade because she has a new math problem. (Let’s be honest – I am not perfect but I’ve tried…)

Is this an over-arching societal issue? Peers? Her teachers have been good but is there a more dominant force that keeps creating this desire to not make a mistake, to fear being wrong? They seem very open to children learning and using different methods to arrive at answers.

Always more questions. Thanks again for the piece. It’s spot on.

Rick May 15, 2017 at 4:10 pm

There is a natural tendency for people to be afraid of being wrong. The strength of it seems to vary from person to person, and the environment and culture can make it worse or help people to ease up on themselves. Just keep at it, and work with all the others who have an impact on her self-critical tendencies to create a team project of helping her welcome mistakes.

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