From Error to Bugs

West Coast Swing Online Grab Bag

Most of us have an error model for our mistakes: we erred, and thus the action did not achieve the intended result. An example of the error model would be a piano student who plays an incorrect note and attributes the mistake to pressing the wrong key. Instead of hitting the A, his or her finger missed and pressed the B key. This model is straightforward and seems to provide a simple explanation for why our action was incorrect.

Unfortunately, the error model is unhelpful in improving performance. The pianist who wishes to press the A key can pay more attention to what key he or she is pressing; he or she can try harder to hit the correct key. However, how he or she can try harder is impossible to describe.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the error model ought to be replaced with a different conceptual paradigm. Instead of making mistakes because errors, we make mistakes because of bugs in our execution. The bug model comes from computer programming: computers faithfully execute the instructions they are given, so an incorrect result is a consequence of not telling the computer the right thing to do. In other words, the problem resides in the instructions themselves, and not in the execution of the instructions.

How does the bug model alter our understanding of mistakes? It allows us to ask why the mistake occurred at a deeper level than the error model. For instance, it might turn out that the pianist has crossed his or her fingers at a specific point in the passage, and that crossing puts the hand in a position where hitting the B key is the natural motion. By modifying the programming—in this case, by adopting a different fingering for the passage—it becomes possible to reliably press the correct key. This method does not require exhorting the student to “concentrate” or “try harder”; it instead examines why the situation made the mistake likely, and then corrects that element of the situation.

The bug model is relatively common in technical fields, such as math and science. When determining how to round a number or how to balance an equation, mistakes are usually not the result of the student simply losing focus. Rather, mistakes emerge from an inadequate or erroneous understanding of how to round a number or balance an equation. Correcting the mistake thus occurs by teaching the procedure for rounding or balancing an equation, and fixing the error in the process used by the student.

Professional WCS dancers also recognize the usefulness of the bug model, although they may not refer to it as such. If you ask them to troubleshoot a footwork variation, they will not tell you to step faster; they will show you why the placement of your body weight makes it difficult to execute the movement in time, and will correct your weight placement. If the problem is the lead for a move, they will stop you right before the problem spot to make sure that your body position, momentum, etc. are correct for the move. Rarely will the solution be to “do it better”; the reason they are pros is because they can see how what you have done thus far is putting you in a position where success is unlikely, and will fix your execution so that success becomes more probable.

In other words, failure to perform a skill is not a matter of not trying hard enough, or being lazy, or not being talented. It is virtually a causal necessity; if you put yourself in a position where the correct movement is not easy, then you will not execute the movement correctly. Fix the situation that you got into, and the problem disappears.

You too can apply the bug model when practicing. If you know what you should be doing but can’t seem to execute it consistently, back up two beats and see how you are getting into that position. It might be that your foot is in a position that makes the movement more difficult, or that your movement is causing you to get overextended at the trouble spot, or any number of other issues. The key is to recognize that there is a reason why your attempt is failing. Identifying that reason and fixing it will be far more likely to remedy the mistake than trying to fix the mistake itself.

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