The pain and fear of mistakes
There are numerous studies about how fear and anxiety can affect academic progress. Making mistakes can be painful. We’re all wired to avoid pain, so there’s often an element of fear involved in making mistakes. However much we might fear them or do our very best to avoid mistakes though, they are inevitable.
Once we accept this inevitability, perhaps there’s a way to actually make mistakes work to our advantage – even learn to embrace them.
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”Eleanor Roosevelt
This post will investigate ideas and strategies to shift our perspective towards a more positive view of mistakes. We’ll look at how we might embrace some of the bumps and turns in the educational road instead of trying to avoid them.
We’ll also explore how we can aim to make the ‘right kind of mistakes’ and look at some of the digital tools which might support us on our journey.
Maintaining a positive mindset – A culture change in education
For many of us as children, we feared mistakes largely because of what our classroom peers might think and our desire not to disappoint others (including teachers, family, and ourselves). This fear of ‘getting things wrong’ led to an avoidance of creative risk-taking, which could have contributed to richer learning outcomes.
Thankfully, much has changed, and many educational settings are now more conducive to creativity and risk-taking. As parents and educators, we should work towards creating an inclusive environment that views mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning.
Mistakes nearly always provide us with valuable data of some sort. Mistakes can become incredibly useful when we process that information with a *growth mindset and look at what it can teach us moving forward. Learning how not to do something or understanding why something didn’t work as expected often offers valuable insights. These might remain hidden if everything goes smoothly.
It’s important that when mistakes inevitably happen, we maintain a positive mindset and be open to the valuable lessons available.
*Dr Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset is very insightful and well worth exploring for both parents and educators.
The multifaceted benefits of embracing mistakes
When filtered through the right kind of mindset, reflecting on mistakes can bring many benefits – some of which may be unexpected.
- Building resilience – The ability to bounce back and keep at it despite our setbacks.
- Staying humble – Realising that our mistakes are not always a reflection on us personally. We are constantly learning and growing, and mistakes are a part of that process.
- Skill acquisition – Errors can highlight areas of weakness, which guide us in finding a path to overcome them.
- Data analysis – Learning how to interpret the data our mistake is providing us with. Once we are aware of this data, we can seek it out and use it to our advantage.
- Open-mindedness – A sense of acceptance and being on the lookout for the lessons we can take. This is in contrast to feelings of fear and avoidance, which can stunt growth and prevent us from reaching our potential.
- A desire to see how things work – When one element of an idea or process fails, it can inspire us to examine its importance as part of a whole.
- Critical thinking – Mistakes can force us to plan our next moves strategically. (If we change ‘A’ for ‘B’, what might the effect be? Or ‘What would happen to ‘C’ if we removed ‘D’ altogether?)
How can we make ‘the right kind of mistakes’?
When moving towards a mindset that embraces mistakes, it’s crucial to differentiate between productive and unproductive errors.
Repeated mistakes, which are a result of a lack of attention or a closed-minded approach to a problem, can leave us feeling stuck and directionless, denting our motivation and confidence.
We should embrace mistakes arising from deliberate actions and calculated risks. These often provide fertile ground for learning and development.
Consider the following examples:
‘Good’ (productive) mistakes:
- A piece of computer code that doesn’t run as expected leads to valuable insights and a deeper understanding of how the code is structured due to the debugging process.
- Altering a cake recipe leads to an unexpected taste, giving new insights into how certain flavours work together.
- A scientific hypothesis is proven incorrect after a failed experiment. The ‘mistake’ gives a deeper understanding of the project and the scientific method and highlights the importance of testing and revising hypotheses.
- A failed deadline can show the importance of effective time management, strategic planning, and goal-setting within a project. This information can inform a more structured approach on the next attempt.
‘Bad’ (unproductive) mistakes:
- Consistently forgetting to bring the correct tools and equipment to class limits a student’s ability to participate constructively.
- Regularly giving the bare minimum of effort to homework, leading to a lack of understanding and poor grades.
- A refusal to consider alternative lines of inquiry or problem solving strategies leading to repeated mistakes and stunted progress.
- Failures within a team project resulting from a lack of communication and willingness to learn from peers.
How can we identify and make more ‘good mistakes’?
- Encourage considered risk-taking.
- Avoid overemphasis on perfection.
- Make goals difficult yet achievable.
- Learn to value progress.
- Enjoy the process of learning.
Be wary of fixed outcomes
Holding a fixed idea of our final outcome can become problematic, especially if it requires us to undertake tasks beyond our skill set.
We can become blinkered to unexpected opportunities. Aiming for perfection and striving for unachievable goals can also lead to a loss of confidence in our abilities. If we can avoid this and remain open and flexible, the learning process might lead to unexpected outcomes that broaden our skill sets and understanding.
Using Technology and Tools to Support Learning from Mistakes
Making use of online tools and resources which support learning can be useful mechanisms for leveraging the value inherent in mistakes:
- Quiz generators – Tools such as Kahoot or Google Forms can be used to create quizzes and questionnaires with instant feedback. Questions can be structured in a fun, engaging way, which gives valuable, real-time feedback on mistakes.
- Adaptive online learning platforms – these adjust the difficulty level of a task based on a user’s performance. This allows students to learn at a comfortable pace and learn from their mistakes without feeling pressured or overwhelmed. Many also employ gamified elements like rewards and badges to help with motivation.
- Educational web-based games – Online learning games can allow students to explore mistakes safely in a low-stakes, non-judgmental environment.
- AI – AI Chatbots like ChatGPT can give instant feedback on ‘mistakes’ within a student’s work. This provides useful insights and recommendations for improvement. They can also play the role of a virtual tutor, allowing a student to ask questions they may be apprehensive to raise with a real person.
- Collaborative learning environments – Tools like Microsoft Teams and Google Classrooms can be harnessed to create supportive online learning spaces where students can collaborate and learn from each other’s mistakes.
Conclusion – The value of success and enjoying the process of learning
It’s important to remember that if a goal or task comes easily to us, the value we can derive from it might be limited. Activities should stretch our current ability levels.
If we’re not making mistakes, maybe we need to rethink the difficulty of our task or redefine our goals. Rather than over-focusing on end results, we should value (and enjoy) the process of learning along with the inevitable mistakes we’ll make along the way!
Understanding these concepts is just the beginning. The real magic happens when we put them into practice at home or in the classroom.