Making Mistakes is the Key to Learning



If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

This phrase, etched into the minds of children for generations, was first popularized in a proverb by British educational writer William Edward Hickson in the late 1800’s. It reminds us all how important mistakes are to the learning process. Authors Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien of The Straight-A Conspiracy revisited this concept in their recent article Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes.

In this article, Maats and O’Brien talk about the science behind mistakes. They reference the notion of the 10,000 hour rule – a concept widely believed by many to be a benchmark of how much time it takes to become an expert in almost any field. They define deliberate practice as the process an individual goes through to isolate their weaknesses. They wrote: “Mistakes are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus that deliberate practice.”

In her article The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom, New York Times journalist Alina TugendIf argued that fear is a big motivator for why students have such a negative perception towards making mistakes. “If students are afraid of mistakes, then they're afraid of trying something new, of being creative, of thinking in a different way.” It is up to teachers to change that perspective so that students can be free to practice and make mistakes and focus their deliberative practice on the things that are going to help them learn. Failure to do so would result in a generation of students who will be scared to raise their hands when they don't know the answer to a question and students who would rather ask an adult for help than try something on their own first.

Teachers, mistakes are the key to learning. Here are some ways you can promote that message on a regular basis with your students:

1.      Require your students to identify exactly where their mistake is coming from, and help them build a plan of action to correct that mistake.
2.      Encourage students to work through difficult problems and situations on their own or with each other.
3.      Praise students for their willingness to point out their own mistakes and learn from them.
4.      Minimize the weight you place for deliberate practice on your students’ overall grades. This includes homework and other similar formative assessments.
5.      Allow students the opportunity to reassess their work for an improved grade. Do this without penalty.

W.E. Hickson had it right in his message to children generations ago about trying until one succeeds. Historically, we as educators though our grading practices and our interactions with students have created conditions for learning that do not encourage mistakes. We have developed a mindset that if we drill children over and over again with the same information, they will eventually remember the answer. We can see the damage this is doing to our kids. It is time we learn from our mistakes and fix this problem once and for all. Our kids deserve better from us.

This article was originally written for MultiBriefs

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