Trial and Error

Over recent months my wife and I have been buying a house and we finally moved in in mid-January. For our first six months in Cornwall we were renting and so it is nice to be back in a home which is ours and which we can make ours. It was a bit of a rush trying to move in during term time and so I was grateful for the half term break and the opportunity to do some things around the house.

Our new house has, what is for us at least, quite a big garden. The previous owner was a landscape gardener and so it has all been thought through carefully, laid out perfectly and maintained impressively. And now we have to try to look after it. The sellers did leave us detailed plans and some notes, which should help, but it is something which we have never had to deal with on this scale before.

I am determined that we will not be defeated by this garden and, what’s more, that we are going to sustain ourselves throughout the summer months with fresh produce grown in our very own plot. Like with any hobby these days, gardening has its own extensive range of kit which is essential if you are to succeed. I have started acquiring this. I have also been buying books and buying seeds. I have been reading up on the cultivation of various vegetables and herbs, and I am ready to go. Or am I?

The problem is that no matter how much I read and re-read relevant passages of the books I find myself still uncertain about what I need to do. The books often seem to contradict each other and they use phrases like ‘long tap root’, ‘damping off’ and ‘plug trays’, which mean little to me.

I’ve therefore reached the point where I’ve decided it is time to just get started. I will be guided by the books but I will also try things out and just see what works. As a result, I won’t have a perfect garden this summer (or probably ever, really) and some of my crops will surely fail. However, in the process I hope that I will learn a great deal and my garden will be better the following year.

I think there are important lessons in all of this. Firstly, learning is a process. I can’t just read a few books and assume I’ll be a master gardener. Secondly, trial and error is a valid (and sometimes under-rated) learning method. In fact, trial and error is one of the basic building blocks of learning – it is a method regularly employed by babies, for instance, who are perhaps the best learners of them all.

Tim Harford, the economist and author, has spent a lot of time in recent years talking about the importance of trial and error. In fact, he argues that not to recognise the centrality of this approach is to assume the God complex. We should have the humility to realise that we know much less about how to solve even quite simple problems than we might want to acknowledge.

‘Why is trial and error such an effective tool for solving problems? The evolutionary algorithm – of variation and selection, repeated – searches for solutions in a world where the problems keep changing, trying all sorts of variants and doing more of what works.’ (Tim Harford, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (2011) p.14)

As the ultimate example of the success of trial and error Harford points to human evolution which is the result of a long series of trials and errors. In teaching and learning we should always remember the importance of trial and error. We all understand that making mistakes is a good thing, but we don’t always deal as well as we should with failure. We should embrace failure as the key to success.



I can highly recommend Tim Harford’s TED lecture on this topic at

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