Making Mistakes Can Be the Best Learning Experience

Scene: My workplace, any day of the week.

Me: What do we do next?

Student: (looks at the desk, the floor, the clock on the wall, anywhere but the problem we’re working on)

Me: What do you think?

Student: (tentatively) I don’t know. (says exactly the right answer) I don’t know. Why are you asking me this? I don’t want to work on this any more. I don’t know any of this.

Me: But you just got it.

Student: Really?

It often amazes me how many of my students are afraid to speak up when I ask them how to do something, especially since I work with them in what is essentially a one-to-one environment. They really are afraid that they have no earthly idea what’s going on, that they’re stupid. It’s like pulling teeth to get them to make their best guess, despite the fact that when they stop to think about it, they either know what to do or they land on the right track.

They’re so afraid of making a mistake (either out of fear of sounding stupid or because of a hyper-critical teacher at school) that they really don’t want to think about things they aren’t sure about to begin with. That fear, I fear, holds way too many of my bright students from reaching their academic potential.

Fear is a funny thing. It can motivate you to put forth effort where you might not care otherwise. It can also cause you to hide from challenges you are more than capable of facing and defeating. It’s that second kind of fear that keeps my students from taking a chance because they’re afraid of making a mistake.

I’m trying to help them see that making mistakes is a good thing. (You’d think they’d get the message by now with all the mistakes I make.) Making mistakes allows a teacher to see where a student isn’t understanding the material, which leads to the teacher helping the student understand and move past that. Making mistakes is part of accommodation, which permits us to learn more. Making mistakes often leads to innovation and invention.

To paraphrase Thomas Edison, “I didn’t fail. I just learned several ways how not to do something.” That’s really all a mistake is, a way to not do something.

Inspired by The Many Errors in Thinking About Mistakes


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