It’s not “just a mistake”: Introducing six different types of mistakes – Part 1

In education, and the community more broadly, there is a movement towards normalising mistakes. “It’s OK to make a mistake” has become the mantra. “Mistakes help me learn” is repeated in classrooms around the world. And, in some instances, mistakes have been encouraged and even rewarded.

But the problem is that not all mistakes are the same. Some mistakes contribute to the learning process, while others detract from it. There is a difference between mistakes that make you say, “Oh!”, and the ones that make you say, “Oh no!”

Over the next two weeks, I will introduce you to six different types of mistakes. We will explore mistakes that make you say, “Huh?”, mistakes that make you go, “Doh!”, mistakes that make you think, “Hmmm …” and more. We’ll develop a language of mistakes you can share with your students to help them understand the role of mistakes in learning and become better learners.

This week, we explore Confusion Mistakes, Sloppy Mistakes and Performance Mistakes – all of which have limited learning value and should not be encouraged. Next week, we’ll explore the more educationally relevant Aha Moment Mistakes, Stretch Mistakes and Design Mistakes, which are the types of mistakes we should encourage in learning environments.  

The purpose of mistakes

Mistakes are only useful when they contribute to the learning process. How much they contribute depends on how much information we can extract from them. Some mistakes provide us with no useful information and don’t help us learn. Others provide us with lots of useful information, moving our learning forward and contributing to our growth.

As we explore the six different types of mistakes, consider them in light of how they contribute (or don’t) to the learning process.

Don't make these mistakes

Confusion Mistakes

Have you ever made a mistake that’s left you confused?

You may have asked yourself, “What just happened?” or, “Why didn’t that work?” And you were clueless.

These are Confusion Mistakes, and they don’t help us learn.
Confusion Mistakes don’t offer us any new information and don’t suggest any pathways to future learning. They leave us no closer to a solution, growth or mastery than we were before we made them. In fact, they can sometimes leave us disheartened and not wanting to continue.

Confusion Mistakes usually occur when we operate well outside our Learning Zone, in what I call our Aspirational Zone. This is where the stretch of learning goes too far beyond our current abilities and becomes a strain. Any information present in a confusion mistake isn’t obvious or accessible to us, leaving us confused and without a clear path forward.


Sloppy Mistakes

 Have you ever made a mistake you shouldn't have?

A mistake that was the result of carelessness.

A mistake where you already knew the right answer or course of action, but just didn't do it.

These are Sloppy Mistakes, and they usually happen when we are in our Comfort Zone.


Sloppy Mistakes don’t provide us with any new information; they merely remind us of information we already know. They often leave us saying things like, “I shouldn’t have done that,” or, “I should have known better.” We don’t progress or grow significantly when we correct Sloppy Mistakes.

When a student’s careless errors are rewarded or passed off as “learning opportunities”, we send the wrong message. We do not want to leave students with the impression that Sloppy Mistakes are valuable, expected or encouraged. With simple checking strategies, concentration and attention, we should aim to eliminate Sloppy Mistakes.

Performance Mistakes

Some mistakes are undeniably bad!
For example, when a surgeon makes a mistake, it can have tragic consequences.

Performance situations demand flawless (or close to flawless) execution.
These are times when we are in our Performance Zone.
We are expected to work error free, at our current peak level of performance.


We should not encourage or welcome mistakes at these times, but rather actively work to minimise and eliminate them.

The often-heard reassurance, “It’s OK, everyone makes mistakes,” is not an excuse for Performance Mistakes. If Performance Mistakes happen, as they sometimes do, we can and should learn from them (that’s what autopsies are for!). But we’d prefer to eliminate them in situations that demand quality performance by staying in our Performance Zone.

What types of mistakes do your students make?

As you reflect on the three different types of mistakes above (mistakes we shouldn’t make), consider the following questions:

• How often do you see them being made in your classroom?
• How well do your students understand these different types of mistakes?
• Do students sometimes think these mistakes are OK, in the “everyone makes mistakes” type of way?
• Have you ever seen the social media myths of “mistakes help me learn” and “celebrate mistakes” poorly applied to these types of mistakes? 

Mistakes we learn from

Each type of mistake described above contributes little, if anything, to the learning process. They occur “below the bar” in our Comfort and Performance Zones. In next week’s blog post, we’ll look at the types of mistakes that contribute to our learning. These are mistakes that occur “above the bar” in our Learning Zone, as we push ourselves beyond our current best and strive towards higher standards.

If you have missed reading my previous Blog in this series click here Mistakes About Mistakes 

What type of mistakes do you make?


What types of mistakes
are your students making?

It’s time to move past “Celebrate Mistakes” and “It’s OK, everyone makes Mistakes” to recognise that not all mistakes are desirable and not all mistakes contribute positively to the learning process. 

This beautifully designed poster helps build a language for learning in your classroom. Students explore the different types of mistakes they make, recognising which ones are to be encouraged, and which are to be avoided.

The poster is available as a “boys” version and a “girls” version.

Site licences allow you to print and use the posters on one school site. Hi resolution, print ready pdf’s of both posters (2 files) are available as a single downloadable product. Print your own posters and put one in every classroom in your school!

To find out more click here 

Best wishes


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