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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Errors vs. Bugs and the End of Stupidity | celandine13, Winnowing Oar

As a long-time amateur musician (on guitar, piano and violin), I was immediately captured by the story and lessons learned at the start of this article. I'm taking private lessons on Celtic fiddle-playing and related her advice to my sometimes-frustrating learning process.

But the blogger's article isn't just for musicians. Her advice also applies to other fields of study, work and play. 

Referring to a lesson learned from her piano teacher, the blogger writes:

I had thought that wrong notes came from being "bad at piano" or "not practicing hard enough," and if you practiced harder the clinkers would go away. But that's a myth.
In fact, wrong notes always have a cause. An immediate physical cause. Just before you play a wrong note, your fingers were in a position that made that wrong note inevitable. Fixing wrong notes isn't about "practicing harder" but about trying to unkink those systematically error-causing fingerings and hand motions.
She goes on to describe two models that people follow to correct their mistakes and improve at whatever they're doing. Relating her models to my fiddle-playing (and my current and past teachers' lessons), simply playing a piece over and over and over again doesn't correct my errors. Instead, only finding and working on the particular error(s) will improve my performance.  

I've heard a similar message in political debates: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results." 

The blog author calls that first common method the "error model." People try to perfect their performance by reducing the number of random errors. She writes about that model:
Improvement is a matter of lowering your error rate. ... Your grade is based on the percent you get correct. Your performance is defined by a single continuous parameter, your accuracy.
But then she describes the "bug model" of errors. Jumping suddenly (but clearly) into the language of computer programming, she describes how to improve performance by finding the particular bug--or cause of mistakes--and then trying to correct that bug.

She writes: 
If your program has a bug, then you'll get a whole class of problems wrong, consistently. ... A bug gets everything that it affects wrong. And fixing bugs doesn't improve your performance in a continuous fashion; you can fix a "little" bug and immediately go from getting everything wrong to everything right. ...
Returning to her piano-playing analogy--and then relating it to learning math,  the blogger writes:
Often, I think mistakes are more like bugs than errors. My clinkers weren't random; they were in specific places, because I had sub-optimal fingerings in those places. A kid who gets arithmetic questions wrong usually isn't getting them wrong at random; there's something missing in their understanding, like not getting the difference between multiplication and addition. ...
The rest of the article applies the blogger's lesson learned to her work and study in education; in particular, "special education" with students who have learning disabilities. She writes:

Maybe nobody's actually stupid. Maybe the distinction between "He's got a learning disability" and "He's just lousy at math" is a false one. Maybe everybody should think of themselves as having learning disabilities, in the sense that our areas of weakness need to be acknowledged, investigated, paid special attention, and debugged.
She concludes:
As a matter of self-improvement, I think it can make sense not to think in terms of "getting better" ("better at piano", "better at math," "better at organizing my time"). How are you going to get better until you figure out what's wrong with what you're already doing? It's really more an exploratory process -- where is the bug, and what can be done to dislodge it? ...
The blogger's article was summarized today, Feb. 21, in an article in my daily online paper, Garbl's Creativity Connections, available at the Creativity tab above and by free email subscription.

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