My school German teacher would not tolerate mistakes. His way of teaching was to interrupt us, every time, if we made a grammatical error, even if we were halfway through a sentence. And so while I learned German just fine as an academic subject, a detached exercise in reading and writing, I never learned to speak with any facility. My body – faced with a real German-speaking human being – simply wouldn’t do it.
It’s this that clearly illuminates the difference between learning about a subject and developing ongoing, embodied skilfulness to do something with it. Learning a skill always requires risk and the possibility of getting it wrong. Indeed, we become skilful in the very process of messing up, feeling ashamed and confused, and then trying again in the light of what happened. Making mistakes, and the possibility of shame, call from us the kind of engaged involvement that’s required for our activity to have sufficient power to disorganise and reorganise us, which is the mark of any lasting learning.
As Hubert Dreyfus argues in On the Internet, this is why online learning (now so in vogue in the world of organisations) is fabulous for learning facts but not good at all for learning to master any complex or sophisticated skill – there simply is not enough contact with the bodily presence of others and insufficient social risk to have our mistakes (or the risk of mistakes) affect us.
It’s also why author William Westney argues (in The Perfect Wrong Note) that our fumbling errors made when learning a musical instrument are so constructive, useful, and enlightening, especially if they happen in the presence of a teacher or group of peers.
And it’s why my teacher showed us German, brilliantly, as an exam subject but did not – because he would not let us fail – teach us how to speak.