Blog Series

Making Mistakes: It’s a Good Thing

by Michael Milone on May 11, 2016

  • Education Technology
  • General Education

The essence of learning is change. For learning to take place, there must be a change in behavior, cognition, or emotion. In all cases, learning is change. It's not just a good idea, it's the law. If there is no change, there is no learning.

No, this is not an example of the “appeal to extremes” logical fallacy, also known as reductio ad absurdum. Nor is it evidence that I was raised in a Skinner Box. (The row house in South Philadelphia where I spent my first five years was home to three generations, including a grandmother who was born in Ireland.) Learning equals change.

There are some instinctive behaviors that are not learned, of course. A normally hearing baby will respond predictably to a loud, unusual sound. The startle reflex is an innate response, so it isn't actually learned. Consider it a gift from your parents.

Lots of Ways to Learn

Despite the really annoying myth that everyone learns in the same way and at the same rate (a whole other blog), there are many paths to knowledge. Oppvelocity-approachortunities to learn are countless (literally), and range from the completely structured to the completely unstructured. They may be purposeful or accidental, pleasant or unpleasant, fulfilling or frustrating.

The change that occurs is the result of reinforcement of some kind. (Note I didn't use the word reward. There's a difference.) When you get things right, you are reinforced in some way, so the behavior, cognition, or emotion increases in frequency. Sometimes, this increase is from zero to often, but usually the change is gradual. 

The reinforcement can come from a variety of sources. Three of the most common are physical effects, other people, and yourself. If you start to play tennis, the first time you hit a backhand right is very reinforcing. You want to do it again. Hearing your teacher praise you for solving a difficult math problem is reinforcing. When you finish reading a challenging but interesting book, your sense of achievement is reinforcing. 

In the process of learning, you make mistakes and get things wrong. No one in the history of humanity has ever learned without making mistakes. You might get lucky and make a strike the first time you roll a ball down a bowling alley, but give it a few frames. You'll be not so perfect soon.

The Vast Misunderstanding

So, given that making mistakes is both inevitable and necessary, why do so many people create such a scene about making mistakes, particularly when it comes to learning in school? There is no simple answer. They learned this inappropriate response somewhere, and I hope we can get them to unlearn it.

One way to do this is a generational thing. We can start teaching students that making mistakes is a good thing. If we can reduce their fear of making mistakes, they will undoubtedly learn better. The willingness to make mistakes is an important element in the growth mindset. Here's a discussion of the topic that is fun and thoughtful.

Another step we can take as educators is to talk more about the importance of making mistakes to our colleagues, parents, and the public, especially policy makers. I realize this is a hard sell, especially to policy makers, but we need to try. Maybe some examples will help, like this story, which summarizes some of Einstein's most notable mistakes.

Learning to Love Mistakesmythbusters

For those of us who are bad-to-the-bone science geeks, MythBusters was an awesome television show. In addition to busting myths (duh), they often showed the things they did wrong to get to the right answer. That's how science works. This story from NPR about accidental brilliance will make you want to get out there and make some mistakes.

It is rare when people tackle problems that most likely have no solution, but they do. The Wall Street Journal wrote about a course at Northwestern University in which engineering students had to tackle everyday problems that were enormously challenging, and in some cases, had no solution. What made me love the story (and the course) even more than promoting the value of mistaking is the context: students were working on devices to help individuals with disabilities in their everyday lives

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