Getting it Wrong

I have not failed. I have found ten thousand ways that do not work.

Thomas Edison

I’ve made mistakes. Lots of them. In my journey to become a more fluent user of digital technologies I’ve had to learn the hard way. Getting into the digital sandbox is the first step. Playing, building, knocking things down, rebuilding and reflecting are all part of the process. Tinkering around should never stop. But I need to make mistakes to get it right.

I’m not alone. In this digital sandbox I have many friends, colleagues, even casual acquaintances, that are building and playing with me. I learn from others – watching, listening, talking, collaborating – and from our mistakes, we get closer to getting it right. I need them to give me feedback, support and encouragement when things go horribly wrong. I don’t need others to always tell me when something isn’t right. I can reflect and realize when it’s wrong. My first video posted to YouTube is a testament to how wrong it can get!

Being human in online spaces should allow each of us to get it wrong to get it right. Sometimes that requires a safe, secure sandbox where we can test our ideas and explore without fear, knowing that others in the space will support us when we get it wrong. Other times we need to step out into the larger global sandbox and risk getting it wrong where many, many others can see, comment and either critique or support. That’s a scarier way to make mistakes. But it’s necessary and an essential way to engage with others who are making similar mistakes or finding someone who got it right to help you learn. We can test and try using pseudonyms or interesting avatars before we reveal our true identities. Taking risks and learning from mistakes is the human way.

“Success has to do with deliberate practice. Practice must be focused, determined, and in an environment where there is feedback.”

Malcolm Gladwell

So I turn these thoughts to how we can make mistakes, show our mistakes to others and learn from other’s mistakes in authentic online engagement. In digital communities of inquiry where our social, emotional and cognitive presence is shared and exposed, how do we find ways to practice, make mistakes and learn?

I consider the notion of affinity spaces as a way to engage around an idea, process or product. John Paul Gee talks about affinity spaces in terms of people gathering around a semiotic domain, such as online gaming. An affinity space has permeable boundaries where content, organization and portals shape the interactions and activities. It’s based on the online gaming community. Features can be also be found in an EdCamp experience or some MOOC examples (#HumanMOOC).

It’s the fluid nature of the community space that is intriguing. There are elements of affinity spaces that allow for the novice, tinkerer and experienced explorer to learn alongside, with each other, while focusing on the task at hand. Making mistakes is part of the expectation going into an affinity space and learning from mistakes is a natural outcome.  In the gaming space, the learner tries and fails repeatedly before levelling up, then shares their expertise with others. It’s not the expert who gains status, it’s the one who learns from getting it wrong and willingly examines these failures publicly for others to see.

Keep CalmHow can this type of fluidity in learning spaces impact and influence being human while learning from mistakes within online learning communities? One characteristic of an affinity space is that leadership is porous and leaders are resources. The focus is on the activity.  Within online learning spaces, leaders and teachers need to move fluidly throughout the discussions, actions and creations while modelling that getting it wrong is a good thing. Maybe this means stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something a student suggests. Perhaps it involves admitting you don’t know or you’ve changed your thinking in some way. Publicly recognizing and openly acknowledging when you’ve made a mistake is important. Providing feedback to others when they get it wrong is also essential.

So, getting it wrong is a good thing. Learning from those errors is essential. Improving, rethinking, remixing and reviewing are part of the learning process. Making mistakes in public spaces ensures that I am accountable for my own learning and also shaping the lessons others will learn.

The challenge in formal learning spaces is that evaluation and judgment become part of the learning equation. Where and when can we take a snapshot in time to determine how close we are to a particular learning target? How do we demonstrate that our mistakes have resulted in improved thinking and understanding? Why do we need to judge ourselves or others against arbitrary benchmarks, knowing that the mistakes we make may not measure up? That’s for another post…. more mistakes coming.

References and Resources

Gee, J.P. (2009, July 16). Affinity spaces: From age of mythology to today’s schools. Retrieved from

Hoyle, M. (2011, July 27). Connectivism and affinity spaces: Som initial thoughts. [blog post]

Keep Calm Creator

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