Learning From Mistakes is Over Rated

There’s a lot of talk these days about mistakes. So much talk, in fact, we could be forgiven for thinking that learning is all about making mistakes. But to think this way would be a mistake!

With all the hype surrounding mistakes, we lose sight of the fact that mistakes – although a natural and important part of learning – are far from the only way to learn. We must ensure students understand it’s important to learn from our successes, too.

Success tells us what works. When we know what works, we can do it again. And the next time, we can probably improve on it and do even better. That’s a part of learning too.

There’s no rule to say you must fail before you succeed. Anders Ericsson, the “expertise expert”, describes the “gold standard” of practice as “Deliberate Practice”. This involves learning from experts – people who have had great success and mastery in a given field. Learning is faster and more effective with Deliberate Practice because you can learn from what others have discovered to be the most effective path to mastery – and avoid many of the mistakes along the way that might slow you down.

This is why we use coaches and teachers. They tell us what works and what doesn’t. By sharing their successes, they show students how to avoid making unnecessary mistakes, which in turn makes learning more effective and efficient.

And mistakes don’t always help us learn either. We all know someone who’s made mistakes and completely failed to learn from them. We don’t automatically learn from mistakes. We learn when we pay attention to them and correct them. As I’ve written before, mistakes are neither good nor bad. They are simply signposts that tell us what we haven’t learnt yet.

Recognising “famous failures” has its place – the often-retold stories of inventor Thomas Edison and basketballer Michael Jordon, for example. They reinforce the truth you’re not always meant to be able to do something right the first time.

But it’s equally important to note that, ultimately, we celebrate these people for their successes, not their mistakes. Who would know Edison’s name if he didn’t eventually get the light bulb right? And would we celebrate Jordan if he didn’t lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships and earn NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award five times?

None of this means we should avoid situations where mistakes may occur. Nor should we expect learning to come without its fair share of mistakes. We are simply recognising that learning from the successes of others – and ourselves – is at least as valid and important as learning from mistakes.



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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