It’s not “just a mistake”: Introducing six different types of mistakes – Part 2

Last week, we explored three “below the bar” mistakes that contribute little to the learning process. This week, we look at three “above the bar” mistakes that provide useful information and contribute positively to the learning process. These are the mistakes we should encourage and celebrate in our classrooms.


Aha Moment Mistakes

Have you ever suddenly and unexpectedly learnt something new? Perhaps you accidentally pressed a button on your computer, and something unexpected but useful happened?

Or maybe you were cooking and unintentionally used the “wrong” ingredient, but it worked out great?





Sometimes, mistakes happen, and we suddenly have insights we never expected. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is an example of an Aha Moment Mistake. Fleming wasn’t looking for penicillin. The mould that grew on the agar dish he was using to grow bacteria was a mistake. But when he noticed the mould had killed the bacteria, it created a learning opportunity by providing new and unexpected information – and, in the process, created a powerful new way to fight disease.

Play-based learning is centred on the principle of Aha Moments. One of the tenets of play-based learning is that teachers construct situations where learners can discover new information for themselves. Perhaps, for example, by exploring the different ways that wires, globes and batteries connect, students can “discover” how a circuit works.

Constructivist teaching methods work in a similar way, with teachers deliberately challenging students’ beliefs with new information to create an unexpected (for the student) moment of curiosity and discovery.

Aha Moment Mistakes can be hugely insightful. Their unexpected nature can make them highly memorable, and they can contribute significantly to the learning process. However, Aha Moment Mistakes can be difficult to create and sometimes easily missed because they provide information the student wasn’t looking for.


Stretch Mistakes

When we stretch beyond our current best, trying new and more difficult things, we will make mistakes. After all, if we could do better than our best, we’d call that our best!

Although we don’t have to make mistakes (e.g. someone can show us carefully how to do something right the first time), Stretch Mistakes are an almost inevitable part of learning.
Stretch Mistakes happen when we deliberately stretch ourselves into our Learning Zone. They are what we usually mean when we talk about encouraging or celebrating “mistakes”.

Stretch Mistakes occur during learning situations – times when we deliberately seek to push our limits, knowing that mistakes are likely. When they happen, we interrogate them and tease out the information they contain to help us grow.

This highlights why it’s so important for us to distinguish between learning situations and performance situations. In learning situations, mistakes are to be expected and embraced. In performance situations, they are to be avoided.

Unfortunately, many schools and organisations have established a performance culture: a culture where people are expected to demonstrate what they can do, error free. In these environments, all mistakes are seen as Performance Mistakes, so they tend to be avoided.

We must ensure our classrooms develop a learning culture. In a learning culture, mistakes are expected, encouraged and used to help students grow. There will certainly be times when students need to perform and errors should be minimised, but these performance situations need to be clearly identified to distinguish them from learning situations.
Understanding the different types of mistakes, the contexts in which they are valuable, and when they should be avoided contribute to establishing a strong learning culture.


Design Mistakes

If a mistake’s “purpose” is to give us information, then the best mistakes are the ones we design.

These are mistakes we deliberately create with the intent of generating very specific information.



While we need to interrogate Stretch Mistakes for the information they contain, we create Design Mistakes to give us that information. They make the information we seek jump out at us.

Perhaps the best example of a Design Mistake is the scientific method. We ask a question. We design an experiment. We control the variables so that the information we gain from our results, as we try to disprove our hypothesis, gives us exactly the information we are looking for.
We can create Design Mistakes formally, as in a scientific experiment. We can also make them informally – for example, if one of two buttons on a computer is the one we are looking for, we deliberately press one to see if it’s the “mistake” button or the correct one. We intentionally look for specific information (and, if you’re like me, you’ll occasionally discover that it does something entirely different and have an Aha Moment!).

How to respond to different types of mistakes

Understanding that not all mistakes are equal is part of becoming a skilful learner. Learning to recognise these types of mistakes, when they are expected, and when they should be avoided helps us understand the learning process more deeply. The real skill, however, is to know how to respond to each of these mistakes.

What do we do when we encounter Confusion Mistakes? How do we minimise Sloppy Mistakes? What do we do to eliminate Performance Mistakes?

As we discussed when we began this series three weeks ago, it’s not the mistake that’s important. It’s the action we take to correct that mistake, to extract useful information from it, that’s important.

What type of mistakes do you make?

If you have missed reading my two previous Blogs in this series click here Mistakes About Mistakes and It's Not "Just A Mistake": Introducing Six Different Types Of Mistakes - Part 1

If you’d like to know more about how to use these six different types of mistakes to help your students become better learners, and to explore the “what’s next” tools and strategies we need to teach students to use in response to these mistakes, then my "Growth Mindset Master Class" will give you the critical strategies you need. To find out more, email [email protected]


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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