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.
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.
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.
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.
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