Why students need to get better at making mistakes

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve written about how real growth only happens when we stretch ourselves beyond our current best. We grow when we seek to raise the bar by working in our Learning Zone. This stretch requires us to develop our Habits of Mind to become better learners.

The challenge with working in our Learning Zone is that this is where we make mistakes. Mistakes are a natural and critical part of the learning process. As such, how we respond to and use mistakes is one of the Five Elements of Effort. Students need to understand mistakes, what they are, how to use them, how to make them and how to correct them.

As the saying goes, we can learn from our mistakes, but the most effective learners understand not all mistakes are equal(1). Some mistakes have more learning potential than others.

For example, sloppy mistakes – the result of carelessness or a simple lack of concentration – have low learning potential. They are easily corrected, well within your current ability and there are few, if any, lessons to be drawn from them.

Mistakes that happen during performance situations also have low learning potential. In performance situations, we work (just) below the bar, maximising what we are capable of without going beyond.

An example of a performance situation is when students create their final draft of an assignment for assessment, or a performer steps on stage for opening night. They are appropriately trying to minimise or eliminate mistakes. If they make mistakes in these situations, they can learn from them. However, the fact they are trying to avoid mistakes means performance situations have relatively low learning potential.

The type of mistakes we want our learners to understand and get comfortable with are stretch mistakes. These result from deliberately going beyond our current limits and venturing into our Learning Zone.

First drafts or rehearsals are the perfect time to make stretch mistakes. This is a time to try, fail, then learn and grow from the experience. Unfortunately, many students don’t understand this and always strive to do their “best work, meaning they try to produce error free results”.

As teachers, we need to help students understand the difference between performance and learning situations. One way to do this might be to hand back the perfect first draft to a student with the comment, “This is too good for a first draft. Please try something more difficult so you make more mistakes!”

The most efficacious learners also understand that stretch mistakes do not have to be the traditional “you got it wrong” type of mistake.  Stretch mistakes occur because there is a gap between their current abilities and their desired abilities. This gap can be signalled by:

  1. An expert who points out gaps in your knowledge or ability.
  2. A problem, the solution to which is not immediately apparent.
  3. Inconsistencies or incongruence between two things you believe to be true.
  4. Missing the mark or falling short of a goal.
  5. A desire for continuous improvement.
  6. A search for alternatives.

See Mistakes and other signposts for learning for more.

We need to teach students that a “mistake” is simply a learning opportunity, a gap between where you are now and where you want to be.

Another important lesson for students is that mistakes aren’t good or bad. They are neither to be celebrated nor denigrated. Mistakes are merely signposts that tell us what we are yet to learn. We need to help our students learn to read and act on these signposts!

Effective learners don’t simply “correct” mistakes. They “use” mistakes to inform their learning. In fact, the most efficacious learners not only expect to make mistakes, they also design their learning experience so any mistakes they do make hold clear signs for future learning.

As we strive to help students become better learners using the Five Elements of Effort, we must help them understand mistakes. We must not only assess their mistakes but make a formative assessment of their relationship with mistakes, their understanding of mistakes and their ability to make use of them. We should be talking to students about how to get better at making mistakes!

If you’d like to know more about how to apply the Five Elements of Effort in your classroom, and if you’re prepared to trial some ideas and share your results with a small group of dedicated educators, please contact me via return email.


(1) Briceño, E, 2018, Mistakes Are Not All Created Equal, blog.mindsetworks.com, accessed 30th November 2018 <http://blog.mindsetworks.com/entry/mistakes-are-not-all-created-equal>


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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