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It’s a Mistake Not to Use Mistakes as Part of the Learning Process

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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I recently heard a TED talk from Brian Goldman, a doctor who admits to having made mistakes. In very emotional language, he describes some costly emergency room mistakes, and then makes a strong case for changing the way that the medical profession addresses such things. He believes that medicine will improve if doctors are free to discuss their mistakes, without judgment, allowing them to learn from each other. But, he continued, because doctors are judged by mistakes, they are too afraid to discuss them. Instead, they are often covered up, blamed on others, or ignored.

Hearing this talk created in me a great need to examine the many mistakes I have made in my life. I discovered that my mistakes fall into four categories:

  1. Those I hid
  2. Those I learned nothing from
  3. Those I learned from
  4. Those I learned from and shared my new knowledge with others.

It’s the last two categories that I think have great potential to increase learning and teaching.

Finding Value in Error

Teachers, like doctors, are expected to be mistake free. Administrators, parents, and even other teachers judge them very negatively for making mistakes. Yet when a teacher forms strong relationships with another teacher or two, they share their problems freely, ask for and give advice, and learn from each other. This also happens in schools where mentor teachers share ideas with new teachers.

What would happen if those pairs or threesomes expanded to include a small group of teachers, plus administrators, counselors, or even whole departments or entire school faculties? I know that some schools have created the trust necessary for such discussions. I think this concept could grow to include a wider number of schools, maybe even become a regular professional procedure for all teachers. What would you think of this idea? Is it feasible? Worthwhile? Helpful? An important side effect of discussing mistakes might be to change the perception of mistakes, not only for teachers, but for students as well. When teachers learn from their mistakes, they might be more willing to let students learn from theirs.

Changing perceptions about students' mistakes is the second way that mistakes can improve learning. In the vast majority of classrooms, mistakes are evaluated as poor performance. Grades are lowered by mistakes. Students are encouraged both formally and informally not to make mistakes.

This belief system is absurd. When I thought of the mistakes I made over the years, the bigger my mistake, the more I learned. I learned from my success, also, but not nearly as much. I guess that every reader of this post has learned and is still learning from mistakes.

9 Ways to Teach With Mistakes

The problem for students is not that they make mistakes. The real problem is that teachers don't use those mistakes to allow and promote learning. Because shame is currently attached to mistakes, students are afraid to take chances, explore, and think for themselves. As a clear example of how damaging this view can be, look at the makeup of most gifted and talented programs. In far too many schools, the students in these classes are not the most creative risk takers or unique thinkers. They are the students who scored the highest on standardized tests. Therefore, we label as gifted or talented the students who make the fewest mistakes. I believe that it's a mistake to think of mistakes as something bad. When mistakes become learning opportunities, everything changes. Students take more risks, think in new ways, cheat less, and solve mysteries that had previously eluded them.

Here are some things that we can do in the classroom to change this defeating way of thinking, including both formal and informal evaluation processes:

  1. Stop marking errors on tests and papers without explaining why they're wrong. Give enough explanation to help your student understand what went wrong and how to fix it. A big red X is insufficient.
  2. Give students a chance to correct their mistakes and redo their work. This allows mistakes to become learning opportunities.
  3. Improvement must become a significant factor in the evaluation process. The more a student improves, the higher his or her grade. Nothing shows learning from mistakes more than improvement.
  4. When a student makes a mistake in a class discussion, don't say things like, "No, wrong, can anyone help him?" Don't just call on someone else without further comment. Instead, ask the student, "Why do you think so? Can you give an example? If you could ask yourself a question about your answer, what would it be?"
  5. My friend and colleague, Madeline Hunter, suggested starting with what is right. If a teacher asks, "Who was the first president of the United States?" and a student answers, "Barack Obama," instead of saying, "You're wrong," try saying, "Barack Obama is a president, you're right about that. However, he wasn't the first. Let's go further back in history." Even silly answers can be responded to in this way.
  6. If a student needs help with an answer, let him or her choose a classmate to help. Call the helper something like a "personal consultant."
  7. Instead of (or at least in addition to) walls filled with students' achievements, have a wall where students can brag about their biggest mistakes and what they learned from them.
  8. Have biweekly class meetings where students share a mistake they made, what happened after, and what they learned.
  9. Be sure to tell the class about your own mistakes, especially if they are funny, and what you learned from them.

I would love to see a sign on every entrance to every school that says, "Everyone who enters here will learn." Learning means not being afraid to examine mistakes that teachers make and encouraging students to think in ways that might produce mistakes. Use all these mistakes to learn from, to improve, and to feel good about individual progress.

In the comments below, please share a mistake that you made and what you learned from it.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman's picture
Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman
Adjunct Professor of Education

I was inspired by your post. First, I pinned a short quote from your article. Then I was inspired to write a blog as a response. As you described, I too believe in the power of the re-do in order to make mistakes more productive. I also love the idea of getting the students to use a life-line like strategy that includes peers in learning from mistakes.

If you can, I would for you to review the piece that you inspired, "5 Things Not to Say When Students Make a Mistake" ( it's on the ASCD Edge blog).

I plan to continue reading your work on Edutopia and look forward to your next article !


Lindsey's picture

I attended the Illinois Reading Council Conference at the beginning of October and listened to an engaging presentation by Jim Grant on Developing Grit. He provides professional development for educators that definitely connects to this idea of using mistakes as a part of the learning process.

Marsha's picture

I really love this article and I am in total agreement with letting our students know it is natural to make mistakes. As teachers we really need to cultivate a learning environment where students are comfortable with making mistakes, knowing it is apart of the learning process. This will make students more opened and learn more. Many times our students let an opportunity of obtaining further knowledge pass them by because they are afraid to ask or answer a question or even share some valuable information due to the fear of making a mistake. We should also let them know that as teachers we are humans too and are also prone to making mistakes.

kwithe01's picture

It is ok to make mistakes. This is the way children and many people learn. It should not be looked down upon.

K. Takahashi's picture

Thanks for posting this! I encounter this aversion to failure when I support other teachers in their learning of new classroom technologies. Some teachers are uncomfortable with exploring a technology and allowing themselves to stumble into mistakes, hit some barriers and sometimes get lost entirely within a program, application or piece of hardware. I try to overcome this fear of failure by presenting learning opportunities for teachers as a chance to play and explore technology.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Jennifer. I'd love to read your piece. Can you send me a link?

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Ken,

I read your blog and really liked it. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Jennifer,

I really enjoyed your post and found the five categories very helpful. I hope other readers will take a few minutes to read it. Thanks for sharing.

Nancy Sanchez-spears's picture

When we are willing to risk in order to learn something new, we are signing an agreement with ourselves that we understand that we may not succeed the first time. Think about a baby learning to walk. He or she takes a few steps alone and then...KerrrrPlunk! Do they stop? Nope, they get up and go plop again and again, eventually thy get it and soon they are running. (My dad gave me this as an example of learning through mistakes when I was attempting a particularly difficult feat as a diver and then later on when I made the rounds to everywhere and back interviewing for a job. Eventually I got the job and now when thing go KER-PLUNK...I drop back 10 yards and punt (another one of Dad's suggestions!) with a new strategy or re-work the old one. We are always experimenting and learning as we keep trying to make it even better than the last time

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