Mistakes Have a Lot to Teach Us

borkenglassRecently in my mosaic class, a relatively new student did something that resulted in her exclaiming, “Oh rats, I did it wrong.” Without thinking, I found myself responding, “There are no mistakes that can’t be fixed.” Then I smiled, realizing I was repeating the mosaic teacher’s oft-repeated refrain. And while it may not be true in all aspects of life, in mosaics, the mantra works.

Of course, not every piece turns out as envisioned. And there are some mistakes that temporarily sidetrack us. We can break the one piece of glass that fits a given use (not that I’ve ever done that!), or dump too much grout to process all at once, drop a perfectly-shaped tiny piece on the floor, and make no end of other creative errors. And yet, somehow, each effort is salvaged. The dropped piece makes us re-think options, and a team of people can save a potential grout disaster. The resulting piece may not be exactly what it started out to be, but it always results in something good. At least in that studio, such is the nature of creative endeavors.

Thinking of that experience at the beginning of the school year made me contemplate the nature of mistakes and how we treat them in school. The mosaic mantra may not work, exactly, in school. Sometimes, at least in formalized assessment situations, students may not have the chance to fix their mistakes. But mistakes are important—and valuable. Mistakes have a lot to teach us.

Of course teachers can learn about students’ understanding from their mistakes, but so can students. We also learn about our own fallibility, our strength, and our ability to get up and try again. Mistakes can teach us resilience, forgiveness (often of ourselves), and patience. Why would we ever hope to shield young people from making mistakes, when they have so much to bring us?

The trick is, how do we create a classroom in which students understand the need to try hard, while also understanding the value of mistakes? I’ve written about such things before (see here and here and here and here), because risk-taking—and hence mistakes—is one of the key elements underlying creativity. I think I need a new classroom mistake-mantra for a broader range of classrooms. For now, my favorite idea is:

Mistakes have a lot to teach us.

Think about what an interesting early-year conversation you could have around that refrain. You could discuss the things we gain from making mistakes, and perhaps the difference between mistakes of not-trying and mistakes with full effort. Then, as the year progresses, you could remind students of the saying and see what their mistakes have to teach them. I suspect such conversations would help you develop a classroom in which creative risk taking can thrive.

What other ideas do you have for a mistake mantra in the classroom? We’d love to hear them.

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