There’s a lot of talk these days about mistakes. Should teachers be encouraging students to make mistakes? Should we celebrate mistakes? Are mistakes good or bad?
I want to try and put the record straight about mistakes and clear up some of the mistakes I’ve noticed about mistakes.
In his blog “Not all Mistakes are created Equal” Eduardo Briceño points out that there are different types of mistakes. He identifies what he calls “sloppy mistakes” and “high stakes mistakes” as two types of mistake we would want to avoid. He also identifies “Aha – moment” and “stretch mistakes” as having the potential to be valuable to the learning process.
That’s an important point. Mistakes are not good or bad. Mistakes are only as valuable as the contribution they make to the learning process.
As teachers we make a mistake when we focus on and celebrate students’ mistakes. What we need to focus on, praise and reward is not the mistake, but rather the student’s actions in light of that mistake, and how those actions contribute to the learning process.
So let’s look at how teachers can value the contribution mistakes make to the learning process.
At the most basic level mistakes tell us what we are yet to learn.
This might happen while we struggle to master a new skill, or when there’s an unexpected outcome of our actions that highlight there’s something we hadn’t considered or don’t know yet.
Einstein experienced an “A-Ha Moment” when he realised that Newtonian physics couldn’t explain what happened close to the speed of light. There was a gap in our understanding that needed to be explained.
There is an important growth mindset message here: mistakes are temporary. Eventually you master the new skill. Eventually Einstein worked out what was missing from Newtonian physics. The way to get past a mistake is to continue learning.
Why do we make mistakes? Stretch Mistakes happen because we are working beyond our current capacity. The problems we are working on are literally too hard to solve with our current skills.
I like to call the zone where we make Stretch Mistakes “The Goldilocks Zone” because it’s just outside our current capacity; Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right! It’s where learning takes place.
We want students to be in their Goldilocks Zone. So it’s important to praise and reward students for working on problems that are hard enough for them to make Stretch Mistakes. But the mistakes are just the evidence they are working on hard problems. The important part is that they are working on hard enough problems.
The Growth Mindset action is to praise the student for attempting a problem in their Goldilocks Zone, not for making the mistake.
The experience of working on the edge of your competence is always hard. It always takes energy and the development of new skills. This is true for everyone, no matter how simple or complex the new learning might be.
Any task that is in, or beyond, our Goldilocks zone will be challenging and difficult to master. This is unavoidable and a natural part of learning. The good news is that our Goldilocks Zone isn’t a fixed point!
Our brains change in response to learning and our abilities literally increase. Challenges that were previously well beyond our reach become achievable.
The message to our students is that they should expect new learning to be difficult. Everything is hard before it’s easy. This is true for everyone. Mistakes are not failures, if they are Stretch Mistakes, they are proof you are making an effort.
Of course the point of all this learning is not to make mistakes. We are trying to grow and master new skills. We want to be able to do things! There is no reward for the concert musician whose performance is full of errors. And there’s no work for the accountant whose books are full of errors.
For many people, learning is all about the rewards that come from the growth. From a Growth Mindset perspective what’s important to recognise is that the performance or achievement is simply the evidence that learning has taken place. The real achievement is the work you’ve put in to rewire your brain and create these new abilities.
So while it is important to celebrate success, it’s also important to not only heed the lesson of failures but also to recognise how those failures, ultimately, lead to the achievement.
People with a strong Growth Mindset understand the important role of mistakes in the learning process. They have experienced challenges, made mistakes, and they learnt that with the right sort of effort they can overcome these.
This is why the Growth Mindset leads to greater resilience. These people understand that mistakes don’t define their abilities; they just define where their current Goldilocks zone is – and that’s important knowledge to have because it sets the scene for future growth.
As parents and educators we praise and encourage those things we want to see more of in our children. Mistakes are not one of those things. Mistakes are just what naturally happen when we are working in our Golidlocks Zone, where we are learning and building new skills.
It is a mistake to praise only mistakes. Not all mistakes are desirable. From a Growth Mindset perspective we should focus more on praising and rewarding the actions children take that lead to learning.
James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.
James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.
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