March – Growth Mindset Coach

Mistakes Are Opportunities for Learning

“How often I found out where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.”

-R. Buckminster Fuller


Albert Einstein has said:  “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

“Failure is success in progress.”

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

“The only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have no new ideas.”





Learning is messy!  The learning process is filled with mistakes and setbacks; it can be stifled by preconceived notions and interrupted by environmental challenges.  Real learning in your classroom with twenty, maybe twenty five different kids and twenty five different brains and twenty five different perspectives is messy, loud, and unpredictable. Perhaps the only constant is that your students will make mistakes, but you can plan how you’ll help students navigate those inevitable mistakes.  Here’s a strategy for harnessing the power of mistakes in the classroom:

  • Normalize mistakes

Inform students at the beginning of the year that they will make mistakes and those mistakes will help them learn.  Together create a mistake language. The teacher and students can both use phrases like “Great mistake!” when they encounter a mistake that shows learning.  Another way would be to ask for a “mistake rationale” to get students to engage in metacognition. Having a consistent practice for tackling mistakes makes them feel routine and expected, not embarrassing or uncommon.

  • Value mistakes as learning opportunities

Check out this popular video on titled, “My Favorite No,” in which a middle school math teacher discusses a strategy she uses to demonstrate the value of mistakes.  

  • Coach students through setbacks

When students hit a snag in their learning that they cannot resolve, the teacher has the opportunity to step in and coach them through it.  However, it is important that you do not fix the problem for the student; to benefit from the mistake, a student has to work through it. Here are a few go-to strategies that can work:  Ask 3 Then Ask Me, open-ended questions, reflection journal, pre-reflective activities, and use the mistake as part of the learning.

 Next – Level Mistakes:  Game NOT Over

The cultural obsession with video games shows us that kids have the capacity to continually try for a goal even in the face of repeated failures, and yet many of the same children willing to spend hours mastering a level in a video game give up at the first sign of failure in school.  Mind researcher Lisa Blackwell writes, “In a video game, students are motivated by earning points, but they don’t get discouraged when they fail. The video games involve skill, challenge, and incremental progress – without the threat of permanent failure or negative judgement from others.”

Try out some of these gaming-inspired strategies:

  1. Provide examples.  If you are curious how to conquer any level on any video game, all you need is Youtube.  Similarly, when teachers ask students to produce a piece of work, they should be able to offer examples of what an end product might look like. ie – rubric, past student work, tutorials, etc.
  2. Nonthreatening.  In gaming, players often wear the amount of effort devoted to mastering a level or game like a badge of honor.  Similarly, students should be celebrated for how hard they work to master a concept. There is little to no consequence for failing a level in a video game:  if you die, you just start again. Similarly, students should have room to fail without consequence. If they mess up, allow them to start again where they are.
  3. Student input.  In video games there is some element of choice.  Students should have voice and choice when it comes to school.  Allow students input on the work they will be doing and how it will be assessed.  
  4. Embrace differences.  Just as there are different strategies for mastering a video game, teachers should give students space to strategize ways to master a challenge.  Let them try multiple paths and figure out on their own what works and what doesn’t. The process of discovery will be much more meaningful than trying once and giving up.
  5. Intrinsic motivation.  Kids are self-motivated to play video games.  There is no reward at the end; they are in it purely for fun and challenge.  Students must be self-motivated in their school work. Teachers who try to motivate students with external rewards are never as successful as teachers who discover what motivates them intrinsically.
  6. Cheats.  Yes, it is a dirty word in education, but there are all sorts of cheats and codes kids can use in video games to give themselves a boost.  We are not suggesting that you encourage cheating, but rather giving them tips and tricks to use as strategies.
  7. Constant feedback.  In a video game, the player is constantly receiving feedback. Dings, bells, organ tones are informing the player of everything good and bad happening along the way.  Students need a stream of feedback from teachers and peers offering valuable advice and information that can enhance their learning. Feedback given throughout the process is more valuable than some notes on a test handed back a week later, long after the student has moved on.
  8. Scaffolding.  Video games build on one challenge after the other, increasing in difficutly.  The sequencing creates a clear path to mastery: First, you have to get the sword.  Then you have to get through the forbidden forest. Then you rescue the enchanted fairy.  Many times teachers present concepts in isolation without giving students a roadmap of where they are going or why.  
  9. Create healthy competition.  Not all students are intrinsically motivated by competition, but many are.  Using gamification strategies, teachers can use video games or other types of games to create camaraderie, increase engagement and promote learning through game playing.  Be cautious to promote cooperation as an essential component of competition.


Productive Failure

Some call it “Failing up” or “Failing forward.”  Productive failure is the idea that mistakes and setbacks can be transitioned into valuable learning opportunities.  Manu Kapur’s research indicates that when students are given time to struggle with solving a problem, as opposed to receiving explicit instruction on how to solve it, they will be able to better access and apply the information they learn in the struggle later on.

“Hidden efficacy” is how Kapur identifies this idea that struggle can propel students to deeper thinking about the nature of problems, which can be far more valuable than figuring correct sums.  This productive struggle, while uncomfortable in the moment, helps students develop the better understanding about learning and problem solving. Teachers can incorporate six features in a lesson that will help create an environment ripe for productive struggle.

  1. The problems are challendging, but not to the point of frustration.
  2. Tasks must have multiple solutions so students can generate many ideas.  There cannot be only one way to get the right answer.
  3. Productive failure design must activate students’ prior knowledge, but students should not be able to solve the problems using only prior knowledge.  It should include new challenges.
  4. Students have opportunities to explain and elaborate on their thinking and strategies.
  5. Students have a chance to examine both good and bad solutions to the problems.
  6. The task should be relavent and engaging to students.’


The Great Mistake List

What do all of these items below have in common?  They were all accidental inventions!  In the case of Play-Doh, it was originally used to wipe soot off of walls in the days when homes ran on coal stoves.  When people stopped heating their homes with coal, the company was going out of business until the owner found out that his sister, who was a teacher, was using it as a sort of modeling clay in her classroom.  By the next year, Kutol Products turned into Rainbow Crafts, and has been marketing Play-Doh as a children’s toy ever since.

Sometimes in the course of our work we get a wrong answer or stumble upon a different strategy, or way of doing something, and these moments can be great learning opportunities!


Potato Chips Super Glue Popsicles
Microwave Post-its Chocolate Chip Cookies
X-ray images Silly Putty Velcro
Plastic Penicillin
Teflon Liquid Paper Ice Cream Cones
Saccharin Slinky Frisbee