Einstein’s Greatest Idea? How to Deal with Error.

OK there will be times during this post that I’m going to refer to ideas about which I have only the faintest grasp. Like when a cat sees a car and knows only to get out of the way, my physics is about the cat’s level of understanding! What this post is really about though is not the details of how gravity is really geometry, or the relative or otherwise speeds of light, but about mistakes.

All too often my students at Kip will make a mistake and berate themselves for it. They lack confidence and use language towards themselves they would hardly ever use towards other students. This week I’ve heard ‘I’m so dumb!’ a number of times from a student who wouldn’t dream of saying ‘You’re so dumb!’ to someone else. Mistakes become a huge issue; they are seen as something to be avoided, something that marks a student out as a bad student and probably a bad person too.

I try to counter this negativity in all kinds of ways but it is incredibly hard to beat. We are all our own worst critics and students, once they are in this pattern of thinking, almost relish the feelings it generates and the excuses it provides.

This week the news has been about a mistake made by Einstein. It’s not just the news that he made a mistake and that the mistake was spotted by a 23 year old student but it is the grace with which Einstein acknowledged his mistake, the speed with which he corrected it and the subsequent impact that correcting the mistake had on his work.

Herbert Salzer, it is reported, was a student at Columbia University when he spotted a mistake in Einstein’s maths. The two men exchanged letters and after the error had been suggested, Einstein wrote, ‘I don’t have my earlier work available. But it sure seems that I have made the same mistake there.’ Einstein signed his letter to Salzer, ‘With the highest esteem.’ Wonderful.

Einstein had previously all but given up his work on the area which Salzer drew him back too. Einstein it is reported, went back to his work and from that reconstructed his unified theory of distant parallelism, one of his masterworks. I can spell those words but don’t ask me for any more in depth discussion please!

Mistakes are a positive thing. I want my students to appreciate that they learn from mistakes. New set texts, subject areas, ideas, theories, any change at all in circumstances or settings, all involve risk and mistakes are bound to occur. Fantastic! Einstein recognised this and positively welcomed the collaboration from Salzer without, it seems, a hint of arrogance or bad feeling. I wish I beat myself up less about my mistakes and used them as motivation to improve and grow too.


About @moodybill

Trainee everything but practising teaching, photography, writing and drumming the hardest!
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