Mistakes and Feedback

In the Learning Landscape, learning is an active process. It happens by the act of moving through the landscape, and exploring new territory. It involves filling our backpacks with powerful Habits of Mind, which enable us to climb out of Challenge and gradually climb higher towards the mountains of expertise.

To learn, and becoming a better learner, requires information that informs our journey. This information may initially come in the form of instruction from a guide (the teacher), who tells us where to go, which paths to take and what to do as we encounter Learning Challenges.

However, learning is rarely smooth and easy. As we travel through the Learning Landscape, we may stumble, trip and sometimes fall as we try to climb out of Challenge Pits. These are our mistakes. They are a natural and unavoidable part of exploring the Learning Landscape as we challenge ourselves to improve and climb higher.

In the context of the Learning Landscape, a mistake might be as small as our grip slipping as we try to climb out of a Challenge Pit. Or it might be as significant as taking the wrong path.

In many ways, these mistakes – our slips and falls, our missteps and wrong turns – play exactly the same role as our guide. They inform us about how to become better learners and achieve our learning goals.

If we take the wrong path and cannot see how to get back to the right path, then we are simply lost. If the slip of our grip does not suggest a better way of gripping, then we are likely to fall again the next time. In both cases, the most important part is not the mistake itself, but the information we are able to gain from it.

This is why popular memes that celebrate mistakes give the wrong message to learners. It is not the mistake that should be celebrated. Rather, it is being actively engaged in the learning process, where mistakes may happen, that should be encouraged. And, importantly, it is the learner’s response to the mistake and the information they gain from it, the lesson learned, that should be celebrated.

Effective learners don’t just make and correct mistakes. Effective learners use mistakes. Every time there’s a misstep, they carefully extract as much information as they can from it. In fact, the very best learners design their mistakes. A bit like a scientist, they proactively think ahead and create learning experiences, knowing that mistakes will occur. These learners engage in that learning in such a way that their mistakes give them the best possible information to inform their future learning.

Effective learners approach feedback in a similar way to how they approach instruction and mistakes: as another source of information. They never see feedback as being critical; rather, they view it as another way to get information on how to explore more of the Learning Landscape. If the information from a mistake isn’t obvious, seeking feedback from a guide in the Learning Landscape is simply one way to get more information.

This is why the most effective learners don’t merely listen to and respond to feedback, passively taking in what the guide tells them. The most effective learners proactively request feedback, asking for more information on how to get to where they want to go in the Learning Landscape.

Agile Learners take this act of “information seeking” to its highest level. They know the type of information they need and ensure the right person is there to give it to them. They ask their guide, “Can you watch as I try to do this, and give me information on what I’m doing wrong at this point?” In this way, they can tailor their feedback to meet their learning needs exactly.

Effective learners constantly look for information that will help them move through the Learning Landscape. Whether it comes from direct instruction from a guide, the mistakes they encounter along the way, or feedback from another source, it’s simply another way to inform their learning journey.

The metaphor of the Learning Landscape gives learners a powerful way to understand the learning process. Mistakes aren’t a judgement of their ability; they are just a stumble or wrong turn in their learning. Feedback isn’t critical; it’s a way to guide learners back onto the right path.

Mistakes and feedback do the same job as the teacher, but at different times. Instruction provides information at the start of the journey. Mistakes and feedback provide information during the journey. All help learners to eventually arrive at their destination.


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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