Monday 11 Jan 2021

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Learning Principle N°4: Making mistakes is a normal, inevitable and even fertile part of learning

Version française ICI

Article by Dr Karen L. Taylor, Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, Ecolint

You, knowing your errors, will correct your works and where you find mistakes, amend them and remember never to fall into them again.
- Leonardo da Vinci, Thoughts on Art and Life

Leonardo da Vinci’s views on the significance of understanding and correcting one’s mistakes are as relevant today as they were 500 years ago. However, doing so is not always as easy as it looks. The classroom environment is key to creating the conditions for students to view mistakes as learning opportunities.

Fight, Flight or Freeze are all natural physiological responses to stress that can be more or less productive depending on the circumstances. They constitute a survival mechanism that has been part of the human makeup for aeons. In the distant human past, making a mistake could mean life or death so learning from our mistakes was essential. In the classroom, we are hopefully not thinking about a physical threat. Still, the discomfort associated with getting the answer wrong can create a different kind of stress in students and we know that negative stress inhibits learning. Perhaps it's helpful to think in terms of stress (potentially negative) or challenge (potentially positive). Our aim as practitioners is to shape the circumstances for learning in our classrooms such that cognitive processes, the ways in which our brains naturally function, are favourable for student learning. 

The idea that making mistakes is a positive and integral part of learning is obviously not new. Da Vinci knew that understanding and correcting one’s mistakes based on that understanding is a means to progress. For a long time, though, the culture of schools looked upon mistakes as failure. Giving the wrong answer was a source of shame and embarrassment. It could result in a fight, flight or freeze response. Recent research, however, suggests that we should view making mistakes in a different light.   

Why is this important? 

In a school where I once taught there was an admissions tour that stopped by one of the maths classrooms for a couple of minutes to watch the students at work. One boy looked up and said “we’re the stupid class.” Thankfully, he used an ironic tone of voice; he made it sound like a joke. The prospective parents moved on in their tour undaunted but I have never forgotten this incident. This young man’s teacher is a sensitive educator whose classroom is inclusive. She is patient and knowledgeable. So the student’s statement to the families on the tour was not a reflection of her teaching, rather something else. 

We all know that students (anyone really) may respond to challenge in different ways. There are students like the one in the story above who are “failure accepting.” These are the students who are likely to give up or not even give it a go in the first place. Others are “failure avoiding” and may come up with excuses as to why they didn’t succeed. They may blame failure on procrastination, or pretend not to care, or say that they didn’t have time to study. They are concerned with preserving self-image. Finally, there are those whose approach to learning is “mastery oriented.” These are the students who seek to understand their mistakes and why they made them and who use this information to develop new strategies for learning. They develop metacognitive awareness. 

Cognitive processing of error

The fight, flight or freeze response is linked to what we anticipate from the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Our brains are hard-wired to predict future outcomes. Dehaene (2013) refers to a naturally recurring cycle that begins in infancy and involves prediction, feedback, correction and new predictions. Our prefrontal cortex processes information and integrates errors into these new predictions. When we make a mistake, synapses fire in our brain. When we struggle to learn something, neurons make connections that strengthen neural pathways. As Jo Boaler says, “mistakes are learning in action.” Or at least they should be. Understanding student error is equally beneficial to teachers as areas of difficulty that repeat year upon year can inform teaching practices and improve scaffolding. 

As classroom practitioners, we can help students to analyze the source of error, the reasoning behind a mistake and why it was made; we can help our students to deconstruct their mistakes and in so doing not only lead them towards the « right answer » but also nurture their curiosity, contribute to increased self-efficacy, and develop their metacognitive awareness

If, as some researchers suggest, “all learning is based on the ability to self-correct” (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014, p. 236), then we should work to create a classroom environment that encourages trial and error, a space that promotes creative and productive thinking (Newton, 2013). One need only think about developments in the natural sciences. In Failure: Why Science is so Successful, Stuart Firestein (2015) refers to failure as “the portal of the unknown” as it leads scientists to ask new questions. Analyzing why you have failed at something involves critical thinking. In the right environment, the human brain grows and develops in response to challenge. 

Cognitive conflict (and making mistakes) is brain healthy. Testing hypotheses, for example, is a powerful tool for learning (Bruner, 1973). It allows students to refine their knowledge, what Piaget referred to as “accommodation” and the schema theorists as “restructuring” (Marziano, 2007, p. 87). Marziano suggests that this kind of significant change in knowledge structures can be promoted through problem-based learning

One word of caution, though. We want students to learn from their mistakes, not for errors to become ingrained. Hence the importance of checking for understanding and quality feedback. Creating a positive classroom culture that invites intellectual risk-taking and that helps students to view errors and misconceptions as opportunities for learning, will reduce negative stress and encourage self-motivation. It will help us to move students from accepting or avoiding failure to mastery orientation. 

Things to consider:

  • In my classroom, are student errors or misconceptions used as learning opportunities?
  • Does the climate of my classroom encourage intellectual risk-taking?

Suggested Reading

  • Astolfi, J. (2011). L'erreur, un outil pour enseigner. ESF éditeur.
  • Boaler, J. (2019) Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers. Harper One.
  • Baruk, S. (1986). Échec et maths. Ed. du Seuil.
  • Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students' potential through creative math, inspiring messages, and innovative teaching. Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer Imprints.
  • Bruner, Jerome S. (1973). The Process of Education. Harvard University Press.
  • Chanquoy, L., Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2007). La charge cognitive: Théorie et applications. Armand Colin.
  • Dehaene, S. (2013). Les quatre piliers de l’apprentissage, ou ce que nous disent les neurosciences. Paris Tech Review.
  • Firestein, S. (2015). Failure: Why Science is So Successful. Oxford University Press.
  • Marziano, R. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching. ASCD. 
  • Metcalfe, J. (2017). Learning from Errors. Annual Review of Psychology, 68(1), 465-489. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010416-044022
  • Moser, Jason S., et al. “Mind Your Errors.” Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 12, 2011, pp. 1484–1489., doi:10.1177/0956797611419520.
  • Newton, L. D. (2013). From teaching for creative thinking to teaching for productive thought: An approach for elementary school teachers. International Centre for Innovation in Education.
  • Rosier, F. (2018, September 14). "L'erreur est la condition même de l'apprentissage". Retrieved from
  • Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. W.W. Norton & Company.