The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom

Alina Tugend

Author, journalist for The New York Times, and mother of two wonderful boys
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

As the school doors swing open to welcome the start of another year, both teachers and students will have goals: to inspire a class, to learn new things, to get good grades.

What probably won't be on that list is to make a mistake -- in fact many. But it should be.

Why? Because we're raising a generation of children -- primarily in affluent, high-achieving districts -- who are terrified of blundering. Of failing. Of even sitting with the discomfort of not knowing something for a few minutes.

If students are afraid of mistakes, then they're afraid of trying something new, of being creative, of thinking in a different way. They're scared to raise their hands when they don't know the answer and their response to a difficult problem is to ask the teacher rather than try different solutions that might, gasp, be wrong.

They're as one teacher told me, "victims of excellence."

Why is this? Because success in school is too often defined as high marks on tests. And if results are all that matter in education, then mistakes play no positive role. They are only helpful if we believe that the process of learning -- which inevitably must include the process of erring -- is just as, or more, important than getting to the correct answer.

I realize that parents play a crucial role in how their children view mistakes -- and I've written about that -- but here, I'm focusing on educators.

While writing my book Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, I came across some fascinating research about how children learn and what message they take away about mistakes.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has conducted groundbreaking research in this area. One of her experiments asked 400 5th graders in New York City schools to take an easy short test, on which almost all performed well. Half the children were praised for "being really smart."  The other half was complimented "having worked really hard."

Then they were asked to take a second test and given the options of either choosing one that was pretty simple and they would do well on, or one that was more challenging, but they might make mistakes.

Of those students praised for effort, 90 percent chose the harder test. Of those praised for being smart, the majority chose the easy test. Dweck has conducted such experiments and studies in a variety of school districts -- low-income, high-income, homogenous and mixed- culture and races.

A cornerstone of Dweck's research is the concepts of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. Those with fixed mindsets, as Professor Dweck says, believe people are good at something -- either good at math or music or baseball -- or they're not. For those with a fixed mindset, mistakes serve no purpose but to highlight failure.

Those with what Professor Dweck calls growth mindsets -- who believe that some people are better or worse in certain areas but we can all improve and develop our skills and abilities -- are much more likely to be able to accept mistakes because they know they're part of learning.

And studies in a secondary school have shown that when students are taught about growth mindsets and that the brain is malleable, their motivation to learn dramatically increases. Take a look at the web site if you want to learn more.

This doesn't mean, of course, that we can all be world-class chess players or pro athletes, but rather that we all have a much greater ability to develop our potential than we think we do. It takes hard work, however, and we can't do it without taking chances and making mistakes.

Embracing such an ideology also means, to circle back, that the emphasis in schools must be on the process of learning, not solely the results. I know this is difficult in our country now, particularly when so much stress is put on standardized tests -- which are all about results and not exploring different ideas -- as a way to measure the success of both teachers and children.

But it can be done. We can learn from other cultures -- for example, in Japan, children are allowed, and expected, to work out a problem in front of the class for 10 minutes or more. Even if the student is wrong, there is no shame. Mistakes are an indication, not of failure, in these classrooms, but of what still needs to be learned.

I also know a group of fourth-grade and fifth-grade teachers in New York who, inspired by the idea that children need to learn to make and live with mistakes, are developing their own lesson plan to build resilient learners. The idea is to help students examine the ideas of effort and persistence, learn to take risks and accept imperfection and be willing to sit with the uncertainty of not knowing.

It's a big task. But over time, I think we can teach students how to shift the prism at least slightly, so they look at mistakes not as something to be dreaded and avoided, but as an inevitable -- and often very helpful -- part of learning.

© 2011 Alina Tugend

Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Mr.Blake's picture
Math Coach at Box Elder School District, Brigham City Utah

I tell my students from the first day they will fail in my classroom, but then follow it up with how to learn from mistakes. I give them a problem that looks easy but they can not answer. This leads into a discussion on how to take the knowledge we have gained and use it to solve other problems. I think the classroom is the best place to let students make mistakes because the consequences are small.

Mary Anne Lock's picture

It was a joy to read this post, as well as the comments following. Too often I have observed in classrooms where many students will not participate because they are fearful of making a mistake or giving a wrong answer, which means an answer different than that of the teacher. Only an emotionally safe culture allows for those mistakes, so I congratulate all who commented, and I wish you well in your endeavors!

Lisa Dabbs's picture
Lisa Dabbs
Educational Consultant. Author. Speaker. Blogger.

I am a firm believer in freeing ourselves and likewise our students to make mistakes. Resonates for me, as I listed that as my last "tidbit" for a current Edutopia post: Don't be afraid to fail."And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up." ~Thomas Wayne from Batman Begins (2005) Until we,the grown-ups, recognize this powerful tool, of "falling", we won't be able to support our students to do it. Thanks for this wonderful piece!

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

How much has anyone really learned from their successes? Only that they did something right or were lucky. There's no growth in that. These results should not require research. They should be intuitive, even axiomatic.

In science classes, many mistakes are caused by incorrect preconceptions. The best science learning takes place when the student confronts these preconceptions with exploration.

I once had a student come to me (I was helping my son with a lab in the class he was teaching) and say I tried all of the different pendulum masses, and they all had the same period. What did I do wrong? That's the beginning of a thought process that must be carefully nurtured so that the student begins to think differently. It's a start to developing Carl Sagan's famous "baloney detection kit" that he claims all scientists have.

Why restrict this valuable thinking tool to scientists? (BTW, good history teachers help students do this too.) A good science course will stop telling students the answers before they find out for themselves.

Knowing the answers means nothing. Your smart phone can look them up in seconds. Knowing how to get to the answers, how to THINK, means everything. Preventing failures, avoiding mistakes, and focusing on just the answers destroys minds. Educators should be building minds, not destroying them.

Damien's picture

I agree. The best math teacher I have ever had, for instance, always insisted that what truly mattered was that we eventually understand what we needed to learn, not that we got it right the first time. I remember that we could for instance always ask for a make-up test if we hadn't done that well on the first one and if we thought that now we had understood it all better. And he was always willing to give extra explanations or more exercises if we thought we needed it to improve.

I'm happy to see that more and more teachers understand that education at the K-12 level is not about ranking people once and for all ("you got a C on a test, you're keeping it forever"), but about finding the most effective and stimulating ways to allow as many people as possible to gain better mastery things that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I have occasionally heard students complain that some teachers humiliate those who make a mistake. In my opinion, it is educational malpractice, a lack of professional integrity, and should be treated seriously.

David Ginsburg's picture
David Ginsburg
Instructional Coach, Leadership Coach, Math Specialist

Couldn't agree more, Alina. You can't win if you don't play--and the way to get kids to "play" is to stress effort more so than accuracy. On a related note, I've seen a relationship between the extent to which teachers promote learning from mistakes and the degree to which students feel hopeful--and thus willing/unwilling to give something their best shot.

It starts with teachers (AND school leaders) embracing this ideology, as you've written. But there's also the practical matter of creating classrooms that support this ideology through mistake-friendly policies. See my blog post, Student Success Prerequisite: A Ray of Hope, for a few examples.

David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I'd just like to point out that we have a lot of work in our society as well as our schools in order to promote "better mistake making."

First, we need to allow people to make mistakes in online social spaces (like posting pictures of themselves nude) and find a way to make these kinds of mistakes things which don't destroy people forever. We used to forget about this kind of stuff, now it follows us forever.

Second, we need to expect restitution from people when they make mistakes, whatever they may be. Mistakes should be things people grow from, not things which destroy them.


Brett's picture

In my foreign language classes I hope and expect the students to make several mistakes through the course of the year and explain to them that it is critical to the learning process. It's easy to give examples of how we made (and continue to make) mistakes using our first language. I agree that far too many students are afraid of being wrong and therefore do not take the necessary risks. One of my German professors always said, "If you are going to make a mistake, make a big one-- you are more likely to learn from it."

Richard Linville's picture

In my classes, I intentionally make mistakes. Starting with the first day of class, I hand out my papers that say at the top, "Find at least one typo, circle it and fix the mistake." I will have misspellings, incorrect punctuations, incorrect syntax, or false statements. Students like being the first to find the typo. Also, I say to the class that I will make mistakes or tell them that they are wrong when they are correct because I want them to correct me. The students enjoy catching me making mistakes. I then acknowledge my mistake and thank them for correcting me. As the year progresses, I observe the students do respond to each other in a similar manner.

Rhoda Koenig, Creating Master Teachers's picture
Rhoda Koenig, Creating Master Teachers
Consultant and coach working with educators in the US and developing countries to provide sustainable excellence in 21st century education

Thank you for shining a light on the inherent power and far reaching consequences of asking questions and seeking answers with a right/wrong mindset. I fully agree with your comments regarding the teaching of process, "The emphasis in schools must be on the processes of learning, not solely on results." I believe as long as teachers and administrators stay plugged into the information dissemination paradigm we don't stand a chance of making the changes needed for our 21st century students. I see your discussion of "mistakes as a compelling way into the larger and enormously important issues of developing self-efficacy, creativity, lateral thinking, self-regulation and problem-solving ability. I have highlighted these issues too in my book Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.