How learners understand and respond to mistakes is an important aspect of Learnership.
There’s been a lot of well-intentioned hype surrounding the role of mistakes in learning on social media, in parenting groups and even among teachers and administration. And while the concept is good, the application isn’t quite right. In fact, when it comes to the role of mistakes in learning, we’ve been getting it all wrong.
If social media is to be believed teachers should be praising, even celebrating, their students’ mistakes. They should even be encouraging students to make mistakes with the idea that this is the path down which real learning lies. But I think what social media has to say about mistakes has largely missed the point.
Not All Mistakes are Equal
Social media and parenting groups tend to oversimplify the role of mistakes in learning. For example, "every mistake you make is progress" is simply not true. Often a mistake is unintended and unwanted and does not represent progress at all. In fact, it might represent a setback.
Skilful learners understand that not all mistakes are the same. They understand how to recognise and respond differently to different types of mistakes. In fact, there are at least six different types of mistakes, and not all of them contribute to learning. (see It’s not just a mistake: Introducing six different types of mistakes Pt 1 and Pt 2)
Six Types of Mistakes
Click on the image above to download a free, hiresolution mistakes poster to print and display in your classroom. (Also available in different variations: Girls. Asian Male. Asian Female)
How well do your students understand these six different types of mistakes? Do they know how to recognise and respond to each of them? The graphic above is an excellent tool for helping students focus their energies on mistakes that will work for them rather than against them.
Sloppy Mistakes. Sometimes students make careless mistakes. These mistakes happen in their comfort zone, and they don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. When a 16-year-old student forgets to put a full stop at the end of the sentence it’s not "a learning experience" – it’s simply careless. These types of mistakes don’t lead to learning, and we certainly don’t want to encourage them.
Confusion Mistakes. Confusion mistakes are not that useful because they don’t help a student to learn. When a student makes a mistake out of confusion, they don’t have the information at hand to accomplish the task correctly. And if the mistake itself doesn’t teach them anything, then they come out the other side without any more information than they had when they started. There’s simply no path to do it better in the future.
Performance Mistakes. In some performance situations mistakes can be very bad and lead to serious consequences. For example, imagine a pilot who had ignored an in-flight instruction and had a serious in-air incident. Would the air crash investigator say, "It’s OK, we all make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of learning!"
No! That’s because the pilot isn’t in a position to make mistakes. They aren’t in a learning scenario (or at least shouldn’t have been!). They were tasked with flying the plane safely. And this performance mistake had a huge negative consequence. While we can learn from performance mistakes if they happen, but we should rightly do everything we can to avoid them.
Of course, some students feel that every situation is a performance situation. So, they are constantly trying to avoid mistakes. Which is one of the reasons why we need to help students better understand different types of mistakes.
Stretch Mistakes. Of course, some mistakes do help us learn. Stretch mistakes, design mistakes and aha mistakes do that.
Skilful learners make stretch mistakes when they deliberately go into our Learning Zone and work on something beyond our current abilities. These are the "good" mistakes – the ones that offer us insights and new information that can help us progress. These are the mistakes social media is talking about when we hear things like "mistakes help us learn" or that we should be "encouraging students to make mistakes".
Design Mistakes. Design mistakes are those that skilful learners plan for in order to obtain more information and get closer to solving a problem or finding a solution. You can think of this as testing a hypothesis in science, or even in taking one approach and then asking for feedback. It’s a great way skilful learners make use of mistakes to grow.
Aha Mistakes. Aha mistakes are some of the most rare and special mistakes. They are those that give a student a sudden leap in understanding, and a sudden path to solving a particular problem. A great example of this is how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Before leaving on a two-week holiday, he left a dish containing staphylococcus culture on the lab bench. Somehow a penicillium mould had accidentally been introduced and when he returned both the bacteria and the mould had grown but there was also evidence that the mould had weakened and destroyed bacteria. This mistake was a sudden leap in understanding the role of antibiotics.
Mistakes Aren’t Important. Your Response Is.
You see, it’s not the mistake that’s important. Skilful learners understand that progress, growth and learning comes from how we respond to the mistake, the information we extract from it and the strategies we use that ultimately correct it.
Not every mistake you make is progress. Every mistake you correct is!
Common Social Media Myths About Mistakes
So, like all our work with Learnership, it’s the student’s actions that are important. It’s not the mistake that we need to focus on, it’s their actions that need to be the focus of praise.
How to Correctly Praise Mistakes
As educators we should praise our students for the elements of Learnership we see them demonstrating. For example, we might praise them for being in their Learning Zone, for stretching themselves and attempting challenging problems. For working on something hard enough to produce mistakes.
We should praise students for the strategies they’ve used so far, for how they’ve applied past knowledge, and for what they’ve done to identify the problem they’ve encountered.
We should praise students for the progress they’ve made towards solving the problem. They might not have solved it yet, but they are likely to have moved forward.
And most importantly, we should praise students for asking for feedback when they’ve run out of their own strategies. Sometimes that is the hardest step for a student to take. But skilful learners recognise that it can be one of the most important when it comes to stepping up to a solution for a tricky problem.
Learnership – Nurturing a Productive Relationship with Mistakes
Our relationship with mistakes, and how we respond to them, is an important part of developing Learnership.
In the Learnership Intensive I’ll show you how to:
· help your students change their relationship to mistakes.
· deal effectively with the perfectionist student who never wants to make mistakes
· motivate the student who makes a mistake and struggles to move forward
· distinguish between Learning Situations and Performance Situations in the classroom
· shift the focus away from the mistake and place the value on student actions and the information we can extract from the mistake
· practical strategies for praising mistakes that avoid the social media hype
I’ll also give dozens of powerful strategies to help your students recognise and respond to each of the six different types of mistakes in ways that enhance growth and learning.
(Oh, and as an added bonus, I’ll teach you how "design mistakes" can help you solve your Wordle in fewer goes!)
If you’d like to learn more about Learnership Professional Learning Opportunities click here to read more and access upcoming events.
Join my mailing list to receive the latest news and updates about mindset, Habits of Mind, Learning Agility and more.