Errors and Mistakes

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In a number of activities of ours, we only do what we know and therefore are always right when engaged in them. But every time we are confronted with what we either do not know or are only just beginning to know, we neither expect to be right nor fear meeting the unknown and therefore be wrong.

Since life always involves us in doing something in contact with the unknown, it would be normal to be at peace with being wrong and in noting this fact, to be helped to change course and be readier in adjusting to the new that is coming our way.

We shall call errors the inevitable aspects which are all indicators that we are facing the unknown. Errors only tell that whoever commits them is still not on top of the challenges. They go hand in hand with activities. Their inevitability makes them functional and therefore significant.

We shall call mistakes (mis-takes) another kind of activity of ours in which we deliberately take something for what it is not, i.e., mis-take this for that.

Errors underline the matter with which we are linked; mistakes underline the person who is involved in the activities. But because we easily yield to opinion, the boundary between errors and mistakes gets more and more blurred and we mis-take one for the other. The two words become synonyms. When we resist the opinions of others (parents and teachers, for example), we can distinguish errors from mistakes and say, for instance, “it is a mistake to let errors be confused with mis-takes,” and know what we are saying.
Indeed, errors happen, while mistakes are made. If I do not know that a container is hot and I place my hand on its hot surface and burn myself, the error is what happens and the mistake is that I do not allow a possibility of whose existence I know, to guide my actions; and that is the mistake.

If I write 2+3=6, I make an error which results from my mis-taking “+” for “x.” The result (an error) is correct within the mistake, which would not be the case if I had written 2+3 = 17, showing that I only know that the answer should be a set of figures.

Whenever we collect errors made by our students in their arithmetic tests or homework, we can find some lead to what they are mis-taking for what, and guide our teaching to generate the criteria in our students so that they stop making mistakes, which then becomes apparent by the absence of errors. If someone says, “I did went. . . .,” there is only an error, because the convention which requires “go” after “did” to express the past has not yet been assimilated. But if someone says, “I do went. . .” there is a mistake because of a tension between the present and the past. Such an “error” is not made by foreign students of English, even though they still do not know how to use verbs in that language. They may never quite distinguish, “I did go. . .” from “I have gone. . . .,” because one needs to refer to some other criterion for the choice between these two sets of words; yet they may still know that, “i do went. . . ” is not to be said. The error committed when using the inappropriate one results from the mistake of ignoring such criterion assuming it has been presented to the foreigner.
Watching a baseball game, we notice that errors are counted as well as hits. And they are called errors although they come from players’ letting a ball fall after it had been caught. They would therefore be more correctly described as mistakes since it could have been avoided, as all players know, and they are not meeting the unknown in this case.

When we practice a skill such as making objects ricochet from a surface of water, we know that we make mistakes at our end that show up as errors in what the stones do on the water; and we try to correct our mistakes and show it in the absence of errors in our performance.

It seems useful to have the distinction above to separate errors from mistakes since both tell of the state of our learning: one for the public and one for ourselves. If we say, “You are making mistakes,” or “You are mistaken in this or that,” you may not yet know that we shifted from our view of your performance to your inner workings and place there the cause of the errors. Only there could we catch it and reduce the occurrence of errors that everyone can see.

Humans can make mistakes because they own awareness and because they meet the unknown as a matter of course in their daily life. Since they want to take initiative, they take risks and show it in their errors. We classify these as errors of judgment or errors of perception or errors of action. We rarely mistake a feeling for another in our own case, because we are close to our selves; but we may so easily mistake what we consider to be the feelings of others. We then only speak of mistakes, not errors.

On the whole, humans do not mind making mistakes and they use their errors to good avail all through their learning. They can do likewise in their teaching, as some of the subsequent articles suggest.

But this is no longer the case when there is ego involvement. In such cases, we make mistake upon mistake and accumulate errors as a result; but we refuse to work on their source, which is what prevents us from learning. Until we discover that ego involvement exists, that it interferes in a number of our activities, and that those interferences cause errors of a kind we cannot stop by being more skillful, we are unable to eliminate our propensity to make mistakes. In some of our articles this matter is taken further. Here we only want to stress that in our complexity we may find that mistakes and errors are not only intellectual or physical, and that perhaps the most challenging ones to each of us are in the realm of affectivity and the dynamic of being.

The use of mistakes and errors in our teaching comes from the awareness that errors are symptoms of some inadequacy to the task which can span from a momentary slip that can spontaneously be put right at once to a total unconsciousness of a state of being which can only generate mishaps and misdeeds. Between these two extremes we find the many kinds of mistakes and errors which will serve as indicators for the establishment of criteria that accompany mastery in the various skills of which there are so many.

But since life is not only skills and their acquisition, errors and mistakes have to be considered in the domains of relating, of artistic expression, of involvement in politics, commerce, research, etc.

This we shall leave on the whole out of this newsletter, although it may be as important or even more important.

Author: Caleb Gattegno

Read the whole article in the Newsletter: On Mistakes (PDF) or (Issuu) Vol. VI N°2-3 December 1976/February 1977.

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“Errors and Mistakes” in On Mistakes by Caleb Gattegno is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. The copyright holder is Educational Solutions Inc.