What’s so great about making mistakes?

To err is human.

Alexander Pope

Making mistakes is an inevitable part of life. We’re all wrong about something at some point. Equally obviously, contending with failure, learning to drag ourselves up by the bootstraps when we fall down and persist in the face of setbacks is part and parcel of human existence. But is making mistakes something to aim for? Should failure be celebrated? 

Clearly, in some areas of human endeavour mistakes cannot be tolerated. We are much more tolerant of failure in education than in, say, aviation, because the stakes are so much lower. If we mess things up no one dies. It’s hard to imagine a pilot saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”

Despite that, there’s an awful lot of ill-thought out, earnest advice in praise of mistakes and failure out there. Why have we come to eulogise this sorry state of affairs? Why would teachers prioritise getting the answer wrong over getting it right?

Now, you might think I’m wrong to say that any teachers think this. I conducted a very unscientific survey on twitter with the following result:

As you can see, over a quarter of the teachers who responded think that it’s a good idea to encourage children to make lots of mistakes, and only 15% see it as their duty to help students minimise the mistakes they make. Of course, it would be foolish to read too much into this as we don’t know precisely what the teachers involved really think, but there are a great many teacher blogs which valourise failure and making mistakes. Rather than embarrassing anyone else, it might be fairest to consider some the blogs I’ve written myself. In June 2012 I wrote a post called The Art of Failing in which I said, “Obviously getting something wrong, performing poorly and making mistakes is uncomfortable. But these things are a part of life. An important part. Apart from all the stuff about failure being character forming there’s the more important consideration that if we only ever experience success then maybe we aren’t trying very hard?” I so much believed this to be true that I advocated giving children tasks at which they could not succeed:

You could make the time limits too tight or make the success criteria so impossibly exacting that there is no way they could meet them. Maybe you won’t give them all the required resources or maybe the task is so open-ended and vague that there simply isn’t a solution. Naturally enough, students will find this frustrating. They’ll want to give up. The point is that you need to unpick with them why it’s important to fail. Some students never fail at school; they find everything effortless. Others never seem to do anything else. The point is that working hard despite the chance of failing is difficult. We tend to focus on the product rather than the process. By removing the possibility of there being a successful product we can force students to focus on the process of learning. They will start to see that understanding and valuing the process will lead to the creation of better products and they will begin to see that it doesn’t matter if at first you don’t succeed: you can always fail better in the future.

I honestly thought this was a good idea. Mea culpa. Making mistakes for the sake of making mistakes isn’t something to be lauded, it’s absurd. The truth is that the vast majority of failure is spectacularly unproductive and prodigiously wasteful. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m categorically not claiming that mistakes are something to be ashamed of. As Daniel Dennett says in Intuition Pumps, “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them – especially not from yourself.” When we inevitably make mistakes we should learn from them and seek not to repeat them. Clearly there are times when we see students make intuitive leaps because of the level of struggle involved in trying to work on a problem. But then there are times – more than we should be comfortable with – when students keep making the same mistakes time and again with apparently no learning taking place.

This is partly to do with the type of subject students are learning about, and partly to do with the way the mistake is processed. When the subject domain is one in which we have probably evolved an innate capacity to learn then we tend to learn well from trial and error. These are biologically primary areas of knowledge. Watching young children learn to walk, speak and negotiate their environments is full of this kind of learning. Children make very predictable mistakes, watch the reactions and then revise their approach. Sometimes this happens because whatever they were trying to do simply didn’t work, and sometimes it’s down to correction from adults and the knowledge that even though some things might work, they’re simply ‘not done’. Here’s a selection of common grammatical mistakes which almost everyone learns are wrong and so stops making them.

Then there are biologically secondary areas of learning. It’s speculated that certain areas of human knowledge – mathematics, the physical sciences, psychology – are based on ‘folk’ disciplines. We all learn folk psychology (e.g. the rules of cheating) folk physics (the effects of gravity) and folk biology (understanding the differences between cats and dogs) with little or no formal instruction, but the deeper reality of science can be hard to learn because it contradicts what we intuitively believe about the world. Schools exist to teach this type of knowledge. Mistakes is commonplace and, without careful attention, students will either continue to repeat their errors, or learn a process with no understanding of why they should do it that way. Because academic subjects are culturally specific and often counter-intuitive, we can’t rely on students’ prior knowledge of the world to act as a useful guide. We need to explain things which otherwise wouldn’t make sense, critique and question these things, and then help them to express their own, new and improved, understanding of the world.

In English literature, for instance, understanding that writers choose words and arrange those words for particular effects isn’t something most people acquire just from learning how to communicate. Usually we just use the first words that come to mind and arrange them without much consideration. It therefore makes sense to suppose poets and playwrights do something similar and it comes as something of a shock to discover that English teachers think there are other, deeper reasons for the passages they have us read. When they ask, “What do you think the writer’s trying to say here?” we have no idea. Why wouldn’t they just say whatever they wanted to say as clearly as possible, just like we do? Asking students for an uneducated opinion is a bit unfair, because although they’ll know a lot about the world, most of what they know will be biologically primary and hence at odds with academic knowledge. We need to tell them what we, and others, think about why and how a writer might be trying to express. And then we need to get them to see that there are other, possibly better, possibilities. We need to crowbar open their certainties and show them that anything can be questioned, but only if you know enough to ask decent questions. Then, once they’ve acquired a reasonable breadth of academic knowledge and the habit of critiquing that knowledge, then we can teach them to construct analytical essays which reveal new and insightful ways to think about the written word.

This process will be littered with mistakes, blind alleys and frustration. Sadly, somewhere along the line many children seem to learn that making these mistakes is a source of shame and something to be covered up. This is, perhaps, the biggest mistake of all. Dennett offers this advice:

So when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It’s not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves), and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions. Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities to make grand mistakes, just so you can then recover from them.

So here’s what I think. First we need to be far more intolerant of repeated errors. If students continue making the same mistakes then they embed bad habits and use up limited working memory trying to grapple with the basics. As far as possible, getting the basics right should be automated so that students have more room to think about the important considerations. Second, I’ve come to believe that success should come before struggle. In this post I set out a three-step process for teaching: 1. Encode success. 2. Promote internalisation. 3. Increase challenge.

The point is not that students should sink or swim, it’s that they should all swim.

30 Responses to What’s so great about making mistakes?

  1. […] post What’s so great about making mistakes? appeared first on David Didau: The Learning […]

  2. Matt says:

    As you mention, I think it depends on what kind of work the child is doing. In DT, making mistakes goes hand in hand with exploring/generating potential design ideas – you do a lot of exploratory work, most ideas are not suitable and are ‘mistakes’, but it’s a necessary process to find the most suitable and creative ideas.

    How does it work for producing plots/themes/characters in creative writing, David? Is there a similar process?

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    There’s a real problem with kids making mistakes in school–far more often than not, they aren’t detected, and the mistake may well become embedded in the pupil’s long-term memory, and lead to future misapprehensions. Just because the stakes aren’t high in comparison to aviation or surgery, I see no reason to teach kids any differently–if it’s worth learning, it’s worth getting it right. Why make things hard for them when they could be progressing on to more advanced material instead of getting frustrated?

    One of the best things about Michaela is the level of confirmation of learning, starting at the most basic level. Yet no one would claim that their kids aren’t challenged.

  4. Matt says:

    Re I’m happy with this one: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mistake

    If we’re going with that definition, then the ideas produced through exploratory idea generation which are not suitable for their intended goal, and are therefor erroneous, are generally the product of insufficient knowledge. However, in creative idea generation the rapid exploration of erroneous ideas allows for the iterative correcting and refining of an idea which shapes the final outcome.

    So are these erroneous ideas that do not fulfill the goal but move thinking forward mistakes? By your dictionary definition they are – they are erroneous and are the product of insufficient knowledge – but ultimately they lead to original ideas and new knowledge. I guess that what I’m thinking when I wondering about the definition of mistake.

    • Matt says:

      Perhaps its about what the intended goal is? If the goal is to produce a creative idea for a solution, then the erroneous ideas produced in idea generation are mistakes. If the goal is to move thinking forward towards a solution, then they are not mistakes as they fulfill their intended goal.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      Genuine creativity at the school level–or even the undergraduate level–is rare, Our creativity is limited by what we know already–the more extensive (and varied) our existing knowledge, the greater the possibility that new input will stimulate worthwhile new output. One of the most egregious errors of modern education is the belief that creativity is a skill that can be taught or nurtured.

      • Matt says:

        Ah yes, the trad mantra ; ) Well, being someone whose job is was to teach children to produce creative ideas, and being a creative practitioner myself both as a designer and cognitive scientist, most of what you say doesn’t fit with my experience!

        Whilst I agree that knowledge is imperative in creative thinking, saying that there are modes of thinking or strategies and processes that promote creative thinking is missing a trick I think. Have you ever met anyone who is highly knowledgeable but is not very creative?

        I suspect we wont see eye-to-eye on this one ; )

  5. Mario says:

    Hi David,

    You have mentioned many times before Robert Bjork’s work regarding learning strategies. Varied practice, by its own nature, it is more prone to mistakes. What is, in your opinion, an acceptable level of error while studying?

    Regarding working memory, Sian Beilock, a psychologist from the University of Chicago, has studied the problems associated with it. In her book Choke, she mentions several examples where too much working memory gets in the way. I copy a couple of fragments from her book:

    “Under low-stress conditions, using more brainpower gets you further. That is why higher-working-memory individuals perform the best in practice situations. Under pressure, however, a majority of our high-powered students panicked and actually switched to the shortcuts that the lower-powered students normally used. Lower-powered students also panicked, but because their usual shortcuts don’t require a lot of effort (remember, they are essentially no more than good guesses), they stuck with them and their performance didn’t drop under stress.”

    “When worries and self-doubt flood the brain, it’s very hard for the brain – and you – to function properly. Of course, when you are performing an activity that is best run off on autopilot (like a forehand in tennis that you have hit perfectly thousands of times in the past) then distraction may not be such a bad thing – it’s the over-control that results from worrying that can really mess you up in these automated athletic pursuits (more about this in the chapters to come). But when you juggle numbers and calculations in your head, and worries deplete the working-memory resources you need to concentrate effectively, your performance can be derailed.”

    You have cited Willingham and Sweller before, but I don’t know if you are aware of Beilock’s work.

    • David Didau says:

      I’d be very cautious of suggesting an acceptable error rate. Here are my most up to date views of desirable difficulties: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/struggle-and-success/

      I haven’t come across Beilock before – thanks. I have to say though, from the brief extracts you’ve reproduced it looks like she may be guilty of a category error. Let me see if I’ve got this straight:

      1. Worry and stress take up WM
      2. Under pressure, students use heuristics to free up additional WM
      3. Students with higher WM do worse that students with lower WM in high pressure situations.

      The first two make sense but Point 3 doesn’t seem to follow. I agree that being able to concentrate under pressure is important but I can’t get my head round why additional WM could be a disadvantage.

      Robustness would seem to be a subset of transfer. Increasing storage strength should make items more easily retrieved under stress.

      • Mario says:

        Beilock points out that reason why people with higher WM do worse is because they worry more easily, they do too much self-monitoring, which is particularly problematic in performing complex motor skills.

        She mentions how stereotypes, such as girls are bad at math, can affect WM and backs it up with evidence. When brainpower that could be devoted to a task is instead redirected to controlling worrying, that person has fewer resources available to her and performance suffers.

        In some cases, less WM is more:

        “By analyzing the errors that people make when learning a second language, psychologists have discovered that adults make some errors that kids don’t precisely because adults have too much working-memory at their disposal.
        For instance, adults are more likely to treat whole words as units – bringing letter combinations, words, or phrases that often appear together into a new context, even when these combinations aren’t appropriate. So, for example, adults are likely to keep the s on a word that is supposed to denote a singular because they have heard it previously in plural form. Children, on the other hand, are better able to pick up the individual pieces of the language they are exposed to, which helps them use language pieces flexibly and correctly. Because kids can only attend to bits and pieces of what they hear, this helps them pick up the particulars of a language.”

  6. Mario says:

    Maybe your definition of learning needs a fourth element, robustness, or antifragility if we borrow Taleb’s term, because retention and transfer can be altered if we don’t handle pressure correctly.

    • Michael Pye says:

      Did Bellock find that higher working memory students are more seriously impaired relatively or that they start preforming worse then lower working memory students.?

      • Mario says:

        Hi Michael,

        Take a look at this paper, one of many she uses to back up her thesis:

        From poor performance to success under stress: working memory, strategy selection, and mathematical problem solving under pressure.


        Two experiments demonstrate how individual differences in working memory (WM) impact the strategies used to solve complex math problems and how consequential testing situations alter strategy use. In Experiment 1, individuals performed multistep math problems under low- or high-pressure conditions and reported their problem-solving strategies. Under low-pressure conditions, the higher individuals’ WM, the more likely they were to use computationally demanding algorithms (vs. simpler shortcuts) to solve the problems, and the more accurate their math performance. Under high-pressure conditions, higher WM individuals used simpler (and less efficacious) problem-solving strategies, and their performance accuracy suffered. Experiment 2 turned the tables by using a math task for which a simpler strategy was optimal (produced accurate performance in few problem steps). Now, under low-pressure conditions, the lower individuals’ WM, the better their performance (the more likely they relied on a simple, but accurate, problem strategy). And, under pressure, higher WM individuals performed optimally by using the simpler strategies lower WM individuals employed. WM availability influences how individuals approach math problems, with the nature of the task performed and the performance environment dictating skill success or failure.


        • Mario says:

          In her book she offers solutions and explicitly says that WM is an asset, only that people need to learn to shut it down in order to avoid an interference with performance when it matters the most.

        • Michael Pye says:

          That seems interesting. I will add it to my list. It doesn’t really answer my question though about relative performance between the groups. Not sure I have the skills to pluck the answer out of the raw data if the paper doesn’t explicitly answer my question.

          As an example of the question I am making imagine you are having a 100m race with Usain Bolt. Naturally he wins. Now assume you are both equally drunk based on blood alcohol levels. Assume Usain has a dramatically more severe performance drop to you. Lets say 40% compared to your measly 20%. You are still going to get creamed by Usain.

          Hope that makes more sense. I am asking the question as it might make the result seem less counter intuitive.

          • Mario says:

            If my understanding is correct, a person with higher WM is prone to worry more and overthink. Beilock offers some solutions to the problem:

            “Adults are better at acquiring a new language – that is, adults look more like kids with underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes – when they are distracted and not concentrating too hard on what they are learning.”


            Having a golfer count backwards by threes, or even having a golfer sing a song to himself uses up working-memory that might otherwise fuel overthinking and a fluffed performance.”

  7. Mark Featherstone-Witty says:

    Many have written about mistakes, even failure (Einstein, Edison, Jobs and not forgetting Dweck and Syed), not forgetting the jolly contribution of Kern and Fields, who invited us to ‘Pick yourself up and start all over again’.
    Here, at The Liverpool School for Performing Arts Learning Group (sorry, a mouthful), we don’t talk about failure, as much as we talk about reflection after a performance of any kind. We have been influenced by, amongst others, David Kolb’s Learning Cycle and Japanese Kaizen: doing, reflecting on the doing, finding out what to do better next time and then … the next time. I think we all know that without taking a risk, learning is inevitably limited. It’s the only way of moving out of one’s comfort zone, which is another way of saying repeating what you already know and not growing yourself.
    David’s aviation example is a good one: even post regular flights, everything is examined.

  8. Thornton Chase says:

    As teachers we are definitely in the business of reducing mistakes and develop understanding. However, this idea of all mistakes are fine means that students have fewer “reasons” to work slowly. When students are doing work, teachers are assessing so that they can come up with strategies for the students to reduce mistakes, but if there is minimal work from the student then there is limited assessment going on. Therefore it seems practical that phrases used by the teacher that carry the sentiment “all mistakes are fine” should be used with apathetic classes or students.

  9. Alan says:

    I honestly can’t imagine who would disagree with the idea that repeated mistakes is a negative thing that needs to be corrected swiftly or that success in the early stages of learning creates a positive feeling and a greater likelihood of a student persevering in the future when the learning becomes more challenging. (I shall be looking for some examples though)

    It’s summed up really by two bits of “folk wisdom”

    1. Practice makes permanent, not perfect.

    2. People like doing what they are good at and people are good at what they like doing.

    I am now slightly worried there is a faction of teachers out there plotting the failure of students for the students’ own good.

  10. paulgmoss says:

    Hi David
    A couple of points. 1) writers of great literature absolutely arrange the words to affect their audience. Poetry is of course the ultimate example. 2) You rightly suggest that knowledge is needed to form a strong base from which students can then begin to formulate independent thinking. I am increasingly unsure though when that moment of independence actually begins in a person’s life. The learned dependence gained from being provided with the analyses in English for example takes a student all the way through to the end of A levels, because there’s no time for anything else (certainly not mistakes). From school then, to where? a utopia of multiple opportunities to think independently? I just can’t see it in our mainstream culture. In fact for the majority, school may be the only place to acquire such a chance.

  11. The Quebecois séparatistes have a thought about this after their failed referendum:

    If at first you don’t secede, try try again.

  12. You might be misinterpreting the meaning of that survey. Perhaps the 25% who encourage students to make lots of mistakes are just nasty son-of-a-guns.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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