Trial-and-Error Thinking Is the Laser Point of Learning – Workshop Tip #263

Share this article

Once upon a time, at Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL), I witnessed how a laser tested a raw material intended to be part of the lunar lander. The researchers wanted to simulate what happens to the material when it reaches space. The laser, or laser point, was a way to pinpoint what they were looking for.

At the juncture when knowledge and skills are applied in new and unknown situations, this is the laser point of learning. It is the point where learning helps learners to drive a deep change in their thinking and behavior. 

What is a Pitfall of “Practice to Learn?”

Michael Allen, M. David Merrill, and many others share their views on practice. Michael Allen says, “When it’s time to perform, it’s too late to practice.” M. David Merrill suggests that “learning is promoted when the learners apply newly acquired knowledge and skill.” The ancient Chinese philosopher, Laozi said, “To know and not to do, is not yet to know.”

In my blog Want to Burst the Learning Bubble? – Workshop Tip # 259 , I intimated that many of our learning objectives and training efforts are “bubbles” because they exist within a controlled environment, a bubble. This bubble extends into our skill practice exercises in training programs.

Consider this question: What really happens in the minds of learners when they are practicing?

Learners repeat the routine aspects of the tasks. For example, to practice assembling parts of an engine or completing safety forms, learners go through the steps and memorize the steps.

However, are they able to generalize and apply the same thinking process in other situations? Or, asked differently, are learners able to learn the content and the process of thinking that accompanies it? Unfortunately, I see more learning the content and less learning the process of thinking.

The Process of Thinking Promotes Generalization – The Ability to Apply Skills in New Areas

Joseph Raelin, in his book Work-Based Learning, calls the ability to generalize the third level of learning. The first level is understanding. The second level, the application. And the third level, the application in another unrelated work area or a new problem.

Raelin observes that generalization – the ability to apply skills and knowledge in new unfamiliar areas – is often missed in training. He explains that generalization can be learned more profoundly by understanding the thinking process that helps learners to generalize. 

Trial-and-Error Method – Laser Point of Practice and Generalization

We have been experimenting with clients and in consulting workshops on generalization- knowledge, and skills that are applied in new and unknown situations. For these experiments, we are using a “Trial and Error Thinking Tool.” The Trial-and-Error Thinking Process is intriguing. It is a laser point in learning.

Trial-and-Error Thinking consists of three steps.

Step One: Start with an idea.
Step Two: Try the answer.
Step Three: Test the solutions/answers.

Repeat the process. Within this approach there are hidden aspects that transpired which makes the process a laser point in learning.

The Trial and Error Thinking Tool is provided by
(Click here to enlarge)

Key Points of the Trial-and-Error Method

1. The idea – try, test, error, analysis, repeat – perpetual machinery for learning
In typical practice and drill types of learning, the content is a routine task. It mostly covers learning by memorization. For example, the content might require learning 10 steps in completing a bank loan application.
Trial-and-error is what happens when step 5 is unclear and there are no previous experiences and lessons. This step laser points how learners can generalize their knowledge and skill. They may not have the answers, but they discover them by trial and error. Trial-and-error serves as a perpetual learning machine.
2. It is agnostic for content
Trial and error is a thinking tool that is agnostic – meaning it is independent of any form of content. You can apply it in any form of work, content, knowledge, or skills. It is separate from the content. In practice mode, therefore, the learner should be learning a thinking tool, in this case, trial and error. However, most programs’ practice activity is confined to a fixed set of content. This confines learning to the content, and NOT thinking.
3. It is repeatable in many situations
Trial-and-error thinking is reusable and repeatable. The scope, depth, and tools may vary, but the principles stay the same. It opens more windows of opportunities of learning for the learners. Learning is not confined to the content but extends beyond to cover the unknowns and unexpected.
4. Laser points of interpreting and translating
Trial-and-error thinking requires learners and workers to interpret and translate the knowledge and skill in new and unknown situations. The capabilities to interpret and translate knowledge or solutions in different situations are new skills deemed important today with technology disruptions, rapid change, and other fluctuations.
5. How about those who say, “Trial and error is too risky for training?”
There are certainly tasks that you don’t want to practice trial-and-error on like “powering up and down a nuclear power plant.” There are serious problems when we don’t practice trial and error, especially when there is high risk, life and death, and potential loss of assets. But short of these conditions, Gordon Moore, founder of Intel, says, “let’s discover the problems ahead of time, and not wait for them to happen to us.”

Using Trial-and-Error in Your Learning Programs

First, start with the awareness that when we design practice and drill aspects of our learning/training, it is not just content that we are teaching. We want learners to think so they are equipped to apply their knowledge and skills in unknown or unfamiliar situations.

Secondly, ask learners questions that spur their critical thinking. For example, “If you face a problem in applying this knowledge and skill, when and how would you use trial and error?”

What are some ways you can think of to apply trial-and-error to the betterment of your learning programs? Go ahead. Give it a try.

Michael Allen
Joseph Raelin
Gordon Moore
Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL)
Situation Expert

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”

Vignettes Learning Workshops
1. Developing Critical Thinking for Modern Learners
2. Microlearning for Disruptive Results
3. Instructional and Experience Design for Workflow Learning
4. The Masterful Virtual Trainer Online Workshop
5. Hyper Story-Based eLearning Design Workshop
6. Training Frontline Leaders as Learning Accelerators
7. HYBRID Remote and Hands-on Training
8. Advanced Skills in Webinars