Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes

Mistakes are a very, very important part of the learning process. However, I notice more and more that my students are afraid to make any kind of mistake. It appears to me that they are fearful of looking foolish in front of their peers (and even me, if we are working one-on-one). We know that teenagers can be extremely self conscious and do not want to ‘lose face’ in front of others. However, I find it valuable to teach them that there is no shame in being wrong or in making errors. In fact, I try to instill in them that these ‘faults’ are valuable and should be celebrated in the classroom.Inline image 1

Although I teach Science, I do not feel that the importance of embracing mistakes is restricted to a Science classroom. I believe that this valuable skill can transect many aspects of a child’s life as well as all subjects (let’s be honest, this is something that adults should learn to embrace as well).

Neurologically, our brains tend learn new information better when faced with mistakes (interested in the neuroscience behind this? Check out these two articles: article 1article 2). This should make sense given the fact that, as a species, we have survived based on our ability to learn about our environment by either making mistakes or watching others make mistakes (don’t eat that plant, its poisonous!) and adapting to it. So, how does this relate to the classroom?

When I introduce a new topic, I like to pose a question to my students. These are often questions that they would easily be able to answer at the end of the unit after they have learned the material. However, at the beginning, it can be difficult for them. Their hands stay at their sides. They timidly glance around the room to see who will be the one who makes a guess. I then smile and remind them: “It’s ok to not know the answer! You shouldn’t know the answer! I have not taught you anything yet! Just have a guess!” A couple of hands may go up. I call on students and they make guesses. I do not tell them whether they are right or wrong (which they hate). I let the anticipation build. They begin to add on to one another’s comments, trying to solve the ‘mystery’ I have created. This ‘torment’ will often lead into a lecture with notes or a introductory lab (from which they will learn the answer to the question). Although they are not necessarily making mistakes in a traditional sense, there is still a great deal of brain stimulation and involvement through the conceptual puzzle I have created.

Another approach I enjoy to get them making mistakes are open-ended labs (or projects). I give them a goal, minimal supplies and no parameters. They must either work alone or with a partner or small group to come up with a solution. I like these types of in-class activities because all of the students are trying to reach the same goal, but they are all taking very different approaches. This is a great lesson in itself for them to learn: there is never just one path to take to get you somewhere, there are many paths to take! Some of the paths might be easier, some may be more arduous, some might be more serious, some might be more fun. The point is: they all end up in the same place! I love observing my students in these situations. This is where you can really see the ones who are still holding on the mindset of “I have to be perfect.” Depending on the partners, some of them play it safe (not wanting to make too many mistakes) whereas others dive right in and begin making blunders immediately. Some watch other groups to learn from others’ mistakes and apply what they saw to their own group (still learning! Here is an article about that). Regardless, they are fully engaged. I like to follow up this activity with all of the groups sharing what they did to “solve” the puzzle. If applicable, we will walk around and look at the outcome of the different groups’ efforts as they share their approach with the class. The students are always intrigued by what their classmates did with side comments of “Oh, wow, I didn’t even think of doing it that way!” or “Wow, that’s so cool!” There is so much learning happening with these types of activities, it’s almost palpable.

This type of learning is innate within us–it’s part of who we are. Mistakes are valuable, they are necessary! As a society, I think that there are too many negative connotations associated with the word ‘mistake.’ Some people like to say “trial and error”, it’s the same thing! Let us stop this unnecessary perception of mistakes being bad, and instead teach our students to embrace them. Teach them that mistakes have brought us many wonderful things throughout history:  Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin, Greatbatch’s invention of the pacemaker, Mestral’s velcro, James’ slinky and Spencer’s Microwave (want to know more discoveries and inventions made through mistakes? Check these fun lists out: List 1List 2List 3List 4 Don’t be surprised with some of the overlap between them). Help your students embrace their mistakes because their mindset can affect how easily they learn from their errors (read more about that here). Teach them that mistakes are valuable because they can always learn something from it (even if the lesson is: don’t do that again!). Celebrate the mistakes in your classroom! You might even want to have them share mistakes they made and what they specifically learned from it and how it helped them solve the problem. Eventually, they should start making those connections automatically.

Let us not forget Thomas Edison who, when asked about his so-called failed attempts to create the lightbulb, stated: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that do not work.” If this is the mindset that we can teach our young people, I believe that they will go into the world and sincerely make a difference as they will not be afraid to try.


-The Ardent Teacher


(photo credit: rchris7702)


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