Posted by: Lena B. | December 11, 2010

Negative ways of Acquiring Negative Knowledge – A critical perspective towards learning environments

By Gabriela Rodriguez & Matias Saarni

In the following text we take a closer look at the concept of learning from errors and its potential outcome, negative knowledge, by critically analyzing some operational environments in which the concepts mentioned above manifest themselves. We share two real-life examples from different areas, an elementary school and the military, and discuss them from a critical point of view. We also consider the theoretical approaches behind the phenomena of learning from errors and how earlier research relates to the concepts at issue. To conclude we sum up our findings and learning resulting from the task, and consider further investigations.


Errors in general involve evaluation based on norms, interpretation and acceptance of the environment, and are thus culture and environment related (Gartmeier et al. 2008). Gartmeier et al. suggest that ”…errors can be seen as actions that endanger the attainment of desired goals.” (95). Therefore it can be interpreted that for an individual to make an error, first the environment must perceive the procedure as an error, that is to say, as a threat to a desired goal.

Errors can lead to both individual and organizational learning in a permissive environment. The more complex the operations are, the more likely errors occur. Recent studies suggests that dealing with errors in an open and learning-oriented way is more sensible and productive than error-prevention (Harteis, C., Bauer, J., Haltia, P. 2007).

There are two types of approaches in the theory of learning from errors (Harteis, C., Bauer, J., Haltia, P. 2007):

  1. Behavioristic approach and
  2. Cognitive approach

Behavioristic approach stresses the process of learning from errors as learning from trial and error via repeated stimulus-response. While the behavioristic approach explains the generation of avoidance strategies, it does not explain the complexity of the learning process.

The cognitive approach emphasizes the reflective processes in learning from errors through reflective and reactive learning (Harteis, C., Bauer, J., Haltia, P. 2007). Harteis, Bauer and Haltia suggest that learning has to involve reflective processes positioned between non-formal deliberate learning and implicit learning, and that learning does not occur by mere sharing the information but always requires reflection. In order to learn from the process of making errors the flow of action has to be interrupted. Only then can the reflective process begin (Harteis & Bernhardt and Harteis, Bauer and Haltia. 2008)

The process of learning from errors is important in the production of negative knowledge. Negative knowledge is knowledge of what is wrong and what is to be avoided, and is gained experientially. Negative knowledge always requires reflection on earlier performance (Gartmeier et al. 2008). Gartmeier et al. suggests that the theory of negative knowledge is rooted in cognitive tradition and operates in the level of metacognitive functions. That being said it is not necessesarily given that errors and mistakes are followed by learning and thus gaining negative knowledge but requires an actor who is capable of reflective and reactive actions (Harteis, C., Bauer, J., Haltia, P. 2007). We will now share two different ”experiences of deviance” (Gartmeier et al., 2007, 94) which we consider relevant examples.


As a novice teacher, it is normal to make mistakes.  I was in charge of teaching all subjects in English to native Spanish speakers to a group of twenty-two 3rd grade children in a private English-immersion school. I quickly developed an extensive amount of negative knowledge to draw upon, and, once I could “know what not do do” (Gartmeier et al., 2007, 90), mistakes became less frequent. I don’t feel bad about the mistakes I made during my first years, because I accept that they were learning experiences that made me a better teacher. There is however one mistake that I am unhappy with the way it was handled.

During my second year the school implemented a new Science program which will be referred to as “ACME”. The old program was traditional and the classes centered around the teacher and the textbook, while the ACME program focuses on hands-on activities. Children are randomly grouped in teams of four and spend a week working on a “mission” (such as Plants, Electricity, Animals, etc). Each mission lasts a week and after that the children are switched to a new mission with a new group. Each mission consists of five sessions, and each session follows this pattern:

  1. Read a “briefing” where concepts were introduced.
  2. Answer questions about the briefing.
  3. Do a related experiment.

There were seven different missions going on simultaneously, with the teacher supervising them all. Unfortunately there were complications that the coordinators who chose the program hadn’t considered. First, while the sessions were supposed to last 60 minutes, the time we had scheduled for Science classes was 45 minutes, in which we also had to walk to and from the special lab. Second, the program was meant for native speakers, which our students were not. Therefore the briefing, briefing questions and even the experiment instructions took a lot of time for them and were very challenging as there was a lot of vocabulary they didn’t possess. Third, there was no one in charge of all the different logistics and materials needed for all seven missions which meant that if some material or ingredient ran out during a class, the other classrooms wouldn’t be able to do the experiment. It also meant that instead of supervising students’ progress, teachers spent their time fetching or replacing materials. And finally, our students’ experience working in teams was non-existent, and as groups were random there were additional issues, like bad social or academic combinations which affected the kids’ progress. On top of all the other problems, children did badly on the pre-made ACME tests we were ordered to use, which made parents very unhappy.

Teachers shared their concerns and problems with coordinators, and they told us to take time from other subjects and use it to have an extra Science session each week in which to catch up, and an assistant was hired to be responsible for materials being in the Lab. This was a start, but there were still many adaptations that needed to be made for the program to work in our context. However, coordinators showed no flexibility and furthermore decided to invite parents to open Science classes, to show off the innovative program.

My students tried their best but were unable to finish their experiments because it took them a long time to read and answer the briefing questions. So a mother asked me if the children would continue where they left off, with the same experiment, the next day.

“No,” I said truthfully. “They have to answer the next session’s briefing questions, and then do that new experiment.”
“That’s not fair,” she said.
“We have to cover all the briefings.”

The mother didn’t ask more, but she complained about the new Science program to the school board. My boss, the principal/coordinator was furious at me, like she had never been before when I’d made a mistake, and scolded me in front of other 3rd grade teachers.

“Why did you tell parents that?” she demanded.
“Because it’s the truth,” I said.
“It’s not the truth. There is a whole extra class added, so the kids can go back to an incomplete experiment that day. That’s what you should have said.”

Of course she and I both knew that one extra class was not enough for five incomplete experiments, but that was the official version of things, and I hadn’t said it.

My mistake was that I wasn’t diplomatic enough, and that I as an employee had not protected the school’s image. I thought the point of the open classes were for parents to see exactly what went on in the classes, but apparently we were expected to show a perfect classroom and if there were any problems, we were expected to embellish the situation so as to show the school in a positive light. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I was doing something wrong in telling that mother something that to me was a frustrating truth. This could be a matter of experience, because I didn’t like being scolded by my boss in front of my co-workers, and therefore I might not do the same thing if I were in that situation again. But it might be a matter of personality too. And despite the negative consequences for myself, after the mother’s complaint to the school board, further changes were done to improve the Science program.

I don’t mean to blame-shift, but I think in this specific situation the mistake wasn’t only mine. First, the new program should have been tested on a pilot group first. It should have been analyzed more thoroughly to foresee some of the complications. Coordinators should have admitted that this lack of analysis and testing was their mistake, instead of behaving like the teachers weren’t working hard enough to make the program work. That would have created a better, more permissive atmosphere and would have taken pressure off us teachers. I would have felt much more loyalty towards the program and the coordinators that had chosen it, if they had at any point acknowledged that it should have been easier for us teachers to do our jobs, and for students to do theirs, if they had shown more care in selecting the program and if they had been more willing to listen to teachers’ feedback.

However, the only person affected by their mistake in this case was me. It became my fault that a parent was unhappy with the program, and that the school had had a complaint. Luckily there were no lasting effects or consequences for me, and though there was coolness between my boss and me for a few weeks, soon all was forgotten.


There is a vast variance between tolerance of errors and assimilation of information from errors in different environments. My example is placed in an highly organized, hierarchical and controlled environment, the military. In the following example I reflect on mistakes I have done but wasn’t encouraged to learn from during my service, and consider how an organization like the military is disposed towards making mistakes, not to mention how in a such environment one can learn from errors.

In Finland it is mandatory for a man between the ages of 18 and 29 to go through the military service from six months up to a year, depending on the training. The ”system” pushes through 27 000 individuals per year, which requires quite a lot of human resources skills and tolerance of people making mistakes from the system’s point of view, or at least you might expect so.

I did my one year service in the mortar company as a forward observer. I was the foreman for group of five men, and was subordinate for many myself as well. At the early stages of training we (peers) had quite a lot of cognitive challenges in forms of intellectual tasks, tests and lectures. Quite fast, in a time span of 3-4 months, training shifted to teaching, lecturing and training each other under the intensive control of a supervisor who was a staff member of the military. Then after six months the newcomers came and were placed under our supervision.

I was in charge of transferring the newcomers to a Provisioning Center on a regular basis, and one day I was short on time on gathering the men into the assembly area. The staff supervisor noticed that we were late and punished the whole company because of my mistake. We were bullied by the supervisor and ordered to change out garrison gear to battle gear and back over and over again for a considerable period of time. Then after the ”exercise” we had our closets all muddled up, as one could imagine, yet had a closet inspection within a ridiculous time after the ”exercise”. Our lunch time was long bygone.

In all my time of training there had been thousands of mistakes made, dripping with possibilities of learning in a constructive way, but error situations were not discussed. What was left was a mere unattached physically explained negative knowledge and the gut feeling that such an error is to be avoided even though we didn’t know exactly what was the meaning or the ideology behind the error.

In some odd way it is understandable that many actions in warfare are to be made unquestionably for a mass people to function cohesively and effectively, and that those automatic non-cognitive motorized skills are to be trained. In a context learning from errors should mean learning from trial and error via repeated stimulus-response-learning processes (Harteis, C., Bauer, J., Haltia, P. 2007) but comes through as a repeated physical exercise that resembles pain. Needless to say in such an environment a mistake or an error can cause dramatic consequences. Nevertheless it seems that there are numerous of wasted possibilities in learning from errors in the military but the environment is too rigid to utilize that information. Instead mistakes are kept silent and avoided at any cost.

The management ideology and training practices in the Finnish military have come a long way in the last ten years. What used to be a sanctuary of behavioristic learning (learning by doing), now is emphasized more on cognitive skills. The cornerstones of a modern military system are 1) trust,  2) inspirational way of motivating, 3) intellectual stimulation and 4) confronting an individual. All in all, the management has moved from managing matters to more or less managing people. Still even though management is more humane than before, mistakes remain a taboo. Behavioristic approach to training generates avoidance strategies that are not open to a cognitive learning (Harteis, C., Bauer, J., Haltia, P. 2007). Things are still learnt through physical motivation in the military training and at the same time the philosophy of ”errors and mistakes equal pain and shame” is fostered and maintained.


Although these two situations seem to be quite different, there is something they have in common: in both deviant episodes, there is a discomfort with the way mistakes were handled. In the school case, the principal/coordinator got angry and shouted at the person who did the mistake in front of her peers. In the army case, the staff supervisor punished not only the person in charge of getting the group to the assembly area on time, but punished the entire group by forcing them to do a physically demanding and senseless activity during their lunch hour.

In both cases, reactive learning took place by the behavioristic approach: both subjects learned that a certain action brought negative consequences to themselves, such as physical or emotional punishment, and therefore learned to avoid those same actions in the future in order to avoid shame and pain. Thus it is clear that negative knowledge was attained. But it is not clear whether the subjects would be able to transfer that knowledge to other similar situations, as not having been given the opportunity to reflect upon why their actions were wrong, subjects might only develop trivial competence- they would know how to act to avoid consequences in a specific scenario, but without really understanding why they need to act that way other than it bringing them less trouble.

For example, the staff supervisor could have explained why it is essential that in the military training, groups of men develop the ability to speedily transport themselves to different locations within a given time. This might have led the subject to understand that some seemingly harmless mistake, such as tardiness, actually might have big consequences in another same situation within the military. The subject might then start reflecting upon which other skills are essential in a military atmosphere, and engage more actively in the routine. Billett claims that ”Individuals need to find meaning in their activities and value in what is afforded for them to participate and learn” (213), and this can also be seen in the school example. Perhaps if the coordinator had left her anger aside and engaged in a private conversation with the subject, the situation would have become a positive learning experience for both coordinator and teacher. The teacher could have reflected upon the importance of choosing words carefully when dealing with parents in every situation, as well as the importance of working as a team member and behaving professionally regardless of personal disagreements with the way things are handled.

It seems, however, that in both these situations shaming was the strategy the used to deal with a mistake. We believe that other more positive ways might have been more productive and equally illustrative. For further research, we are interested in the role shame plays in learning from mistakes, as well as how shaming as a strategy has varied throughout the years.


Billett, Stephen. (2001) Learning through work: workplace affordances and individual engagement. Journal of Workplace Learning vol 13 n 5. (209-214) MCB University Press

Gartmeier, M et al. (2008) Negative knowledge: Understanding Professional Learning and Expertise. Vocations and Learning: Studies in Vocational and Professional Education. 87-103 doi:10.1007/s12186-008-9006-1

Gruber, H., & Palonen, T. (2007) Learning in the workplace: New developments. Research in Educational Sciences 32. Finland: Finnish Educational Research Association.

Harteis & Bernhardt. (2010). Learning from Errors: ELE 7 Workplace Learning [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

Harteis, Christian et al. (2008) The culture of learning from mistakes: How employees handle mistakes in everyday work. International Journal of Educational Research. (223-231). doi: 10.1016/j.ijer.2008.07.003

Harteis, Bauer & Haltia. (2007). Learning from errors at the workplace – Insights from two studies in Germany and Finland. In Gruber, H. & Palonen, T.  (Eds.), Learning in the workplace: New developments. Research in Educational Sciences 32. (89-103). Finland: Finnish Educational Research Association.



  1. First of all, I want to tell you that you choose a very interesting topic and you wrote the article in a very good way. I really enjoyed it to read it.

    Nice introduction. It was good that you explained your concept in detail so that one exactly knows what you are talking about.
    I found it really good, that you wrote a personal experience, because of this, it was really easy to unterstand it. The topic, is really important for each of us, who wants to become a teacher and so I think everybody should read it.

  2. I really liked your examples.
    What I completely agree is: you wrote about learning from errors is better than learning from trial, but only if you reflect your errors.

    In the conclusion you also mentioned that the “WHY” is very important; why was this error an error?
    Thinking back to my childhood it gave me a smile. I think everybody knows the situation when a child did something wrong in the eyes of the parents and then the child asks: “Why I am not allowed to do this?” And the answer is: “Because it just is that way!” And the child nodded; even of she/he did not understand.
    What I want to say with my example is, that is very important to explain the children the “why” in their errors and reflect them, because this is the only way to learn from errors and make it better the next time.

    The children should understand the explanation of the “why”; not mindlessly accept (“Because it just is that way”), but they should also know why it is so, and self-reflect.

  3. Thanks for this article! I think you chose a very useful and interesting topic.

    In my point of view, negative reinforcement is quite unuseful for people when the matter is to learn. To shout, underestimate or punish someone, even more in public, condition the learning on the person and can happen two things:

    -They don´t learn at all
    -They learn from the mistake and keep on trying

    I think there are a lot of ways to improve and to correct when people is learning something. Supervisors of the task should be very careful with how they communicate and teach what the others must learn, if not individuals can feel undervalued and low-steemed and it can have severe repercutions in the learning, or even worst, they can abandon it and calificate as negative to their lives.

    For example, if a teacher punish or degrade an student in front of their peers because s/he does not understand an exercise or they get it wrong , the consequences for the child will be horrible. They will feel stupid or less than the other, unable to achieve whatever their partness can what can create confusion, conflict, unmotivation and low-steem in the child. Worst if just the teacher tries to tell them they could do it better, and believe in their possibilities and skills, then the approach for the child could be totally different and, surely, his/her learning as well.

  4. I find this article interesting because it is true that for our learning is good to learn from our own errors because they help us doing our best, as I have also read in the article of “Learning from mistakes”.

    From your own mistakes you can gain in self-improvement. Mistakes are then essential to success. The important thing is to view mistakes as a useful step. We must learn from them and ask to ourselves “How can I apply what I’ve just learned from this mistake I made?”

  5. I really like this article because this topic is so interesting and the way it is structured make the reading easier.

    Last year when I was doing my practice lessons in a school I used to do lot of mistakes because I didn’t know what to do or not to do with children, but I learnt from my errors as well and now I work better with the students. So we don’t have to think about mistakes in a negative way because without them we can’t improve.

  6. First of all I would like to say that I found the topic very interesting.

    I feel identify with the author because I also spent time to know what no to do with my students. So, I learned from the mistakes I did, of course. But when you are working with young children you have to be careful. Because maybe you tell the child what is wrong in front of the class, or you shout and the child may stop trying to do the task well and not learn anything. That’s why it is important to reflect about our errors if we want to learn from them. It is important to explain the children WHY the errors occur and we have to make them reflect. Because only in this way we would be able to learn from errors.

  7. Original and maybe unusual topic. Interesting.

    Good examples and well chosen to explain the theory.

    I share many points of view with the article. I’m totally agree that an error has to be corrected and clarify why has been an error and why is important learn the properly way to do thing and don’t repeat it. Even if the results in one specific case were successful for the individual.
    The capacity to learn when we are children is quite big, but as easy is learn something as difficult is forget it, rectify and learn another way to do it.

    Along my degree in training teacher, more than one teacher has told me that if I’m not sure about something, don’t teach it, but investigate. After all, we, teachers or not, are still normal people and as any human can have errors. Our learning process is continuous and errors are one tool more to acquire new knowledge, but in children many times can be different, setting mistakes in their minds. Because of that, is our labour try to guide them to be critical with the information and study if something is truthful before believe it

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