Saturday, 9 February 2013

The importance of making mistakes

I am a proud advocate of making mistakes. As a languages teacher (and life-long language learner) I am proud to say that making mistakes has helped me to learn and teach three modern foreign languages, and I hope that I never stop making mistakes! Why am I so keen to keep getting things wrong? Well, as I tell the children that I teach, I’d rather you give it a go, get it wrong and learn from the experience, than never try at all. Where would be the fun in that?!

Let me share an embarrassing (and, with hindsight, rather funny) example of when I made a mistake on my own language learning journey. During my time in Italy as part of my overseas placement for my undergraduate degree, I was working as an English Language Assistant at a high school in Milan. Although most of the time I was speaking in English with the students with whom I was working, there was the occasional moment when I needed to communicate with them in Italian if something was not understood, or a translation was required. When I thought I’d said something along the lines of “I would discourage the use of an online translator” to the class (using the Italian verb ‘scoraggiare’), my utterance was immediately followed by a roar of laughter from the 30 fifteen-year-olds and the 60-something year old teacher that seemed to rattle windows and reverberate through me. Huh?! What had I said that was so funny? Well, as the teacher tried to explain to me, struggling to succumb to a schoolgirl-like giggling fit, I had mistakenly used a very similar verb that carried an altogether different meaning – ‘scoreggiare’ – meaning ‘to fart’. You can imagine my dismay. Enough said on that matter!

Needless to say, I learnt from this mistake, and it is a mistake that I will never make again, I doubt! And although it may have been embarrassing at the time, I can look back now and smile J.

As human beings, many of us seem to fear/dislike/avoid failure. We don’t want to appear as weak, defunct, not good enough, or dare I say – stupid. We have reputations to uphold, goals to reach; this must suggest that making mistakes will only slow us down, get in the way of our trajectory, or make other people think less of us. There is a name for this – atychiphobia. From the Greek phóbos, meaning "fear" or "morbid fear" and atyches meaning "unfortunate", it is the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure. As with many phobias, atychiphobia often leads to a constricted lifestyle, and is particularly devastating for its effects on a person’s willingness to attempt certain activities (thanks Wikipedia for that explanation!).

Granted, I don’t believe that the vast majority of the students we teach suffer from such an intense phobia in this way, or at least I hope they don’t! However, if too much pressure were to be placed on us to get something right all the time, whether it be by our families, friends, teachers, then the very idea of getting something wrong along the way would probably be perceived negatively by the student. Attributing a negative connotation to the act of making a mistake is something that probably all of us do, not just the children we teach. This can’t be good for what we’re trying to achieve in our classrooms and beyond.

What I’m hoping to do is to break down this misconception that making mistakes is a bad thing. This is certainly what I’m trying to impart on the students that I see each day. This is a challenge, though. It is almost instinctual to think that mistakes are bad. If presented with the choice of saying something that contained a mistake or something that didn’t, I don’t think anyone would opt for the former.

However, making mistakes is an important part of the learning process, not just in language learning, but in any area. Niels Bohr (1885-1962), a Danish physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for making foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, once said that, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field”. Wise words from a very wise man.

We need to question things, not understand something straight away, get something wrong, ask yourself what and why something is wrong, figure out what something would look like if it were correct. If we did everything correctly the first time around, I wonder whether we would retain the information as easily. Is it a linear process of accepting something as a given, regurgitating it for a test and moving on to the next thing, or is the learning process a bit more jagged, a bit messier, a bit rough around the edges? Do we learn by not getting it right the first time, maybe not even the second, third or fourth time? Do the mistakes we make along the way actually help us to understand why something is the way it is? It raises the question of how we learn, and it is a question that has an infinite number of theories and approaches and opinions attached to it. It is very much open to interpretation, so I will leave that interpretation open for you to ponder as you do the ironing or walk the dog.

Something that my MFL colleagues and I have been trying with our Year 8 students is presenting them with common mistakes made by learners of Spanish, and asking them to identify where the mistake is in a sentence, explain why it is a mistake, and demonstrate what it should look like, explaining why it is now correct.

What I found to be particularly interesting with this activity was that these students were easily able to identify what was wrong with the sentence and re-draft a correct version, yet they struggled to articulate exactly why it was wrong, even when they were given the opportunity to discuss their thoughts with other students. I was impressed with their instinct for spotting the error and amending it, but what they appeared to lack was the ability to verbalise the nitty-gritty.

I think that the first time I tried this activity I was a bit disheartened by the fact that they weren’t able to explain why they knew the right answer. Somehow, just knowing what the right answer was, wasn’t enough! What I really wanted was for them to learn from the mistake. But then I thought to myself, this is the first time I’ve asked them to do an evaluation activity of this sort (aside from simply peer- and self-assessment activities that simply check whether answers are right or wrong). Like everything in learning, it is a skill that needs to be practised and developed. I hope that, with perseverance, these activities will help learners to see the usefulness of making mistakes, but more importantly, truly learning from them. In this way, hopefully they will avoid making the same mistake in the future, freeing them up to make new mistakes and restart the learning cycle.



  1. Great post Tom.

    I'm all for learning from mistakes and its they key to students who improve in maths. Unfortunately maths is perhaps the number one subject where students are afraid to try and get things wrong, due to past experiences or an excessive focus on the correct answer rather than method. Been a while since we've used a common mistakes task with students. Maybe it's time to try again.

  2. Dear Tom

    I totally agree with you about 'mistakes'.
    In design the students will always grab hold of the rubber to rub out a line, a detail even a wavy line. I ask them why they are using the rubber, their reply is 'it's wrong miss' and I respond 'is it?'.
    I have demonstrate constantly, how in design when sketching ideas rubbers are not needed because everything that is drawn on that sheet of paper is an idea. when sketching should a drawing not look right, then move on and sketch it again with the improvements or changes but NEVER USE A RUBBER.
    Mistakes in design can only be a good thing,in some cases mistakes end up making the difference in the design of a product. Look how in the past scientist and designers have made mistakes that have made a new discovery.
    When the students do sketching or of modelling, I take away the rubbers. They do find it difficult at first not to use a rubber and a few still do.
    this shows how it has been implanted in their mind that it mistakes should be erased and not reflected on.
    Teachers should do one lesson on making mistakes and teach the students that mistakes are a good thing, it enhances ones learning and get one to think why they had made a mistake, can you take the mistake forward and see what will happen especially in design. When my textile and design students are working on their ideas I allow them to go ahead and make a mistake because there are times when I feel that I want to see if that mistake does make that difference. I am learning too.

  3. I too believe that from mistakes we enhance our learning. In design I encourage the students not to use a rubber when sketching or drawing ideas, why, because every line, shape, and detail is all part of an idea regards whether it is used or not. Ask the students why they are using a rubber their reply is what they had done is wrong. I say its not, leave that idea alone and sketch it again with the changes.The drawings show the design journey, what the mind was thinking throughout the design process.
    I tend to take away all rubbers when teaching design or when the students are sketching their ideas for a product. They find this very difficult.
    When I see my students creating something,and I can see that they are making a mistake, I hold back and let them carry on. You know what, sometimes their mistakes turn out for the best, which teaches me it is right to make mistakes in design the outcome can be better than you expected.
    Some of the great ideas from the past were mistakes.