Why understanding these four types of mistakes can help our learning

We can deepen our own and our students’ understanding of mistakes, which are not all created equal, and are not always desirable. After all, our ability to manage and learn from mistakes is not fixed. We can improve it.

types-of-mistakes-chart_v3

Here are two popular quotes about mistakes.

“A life spent making mistakes is not only most honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing” — George Bernard Shaw

“It is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose which it truly has.” — Maria Montessori

These constructive quotes communicate that mistakes are desirable, which is a positive message and part of what we want students to learn. An appreciation of mistakes helps us overcome our fear of making them, enabling us to take risks. But we also want students to understand what kinds of mistakes are most useful and how to most learn from them.

Types of mistakes

The stretch mistakes

Stretch mistakes happen when we’re working to expand our current abilities. We’re not trying to make these mistakes in that we’re not trying to do something incorrectly, but instead, we’re trying to do something that is beyond what we already can do without help, so we’re bound to make some errors.

Stretch mistakes are positive. If we never made stretch mistakes, it would mean that we never truly challenged ourselves to learn new knowledge or skills.

We want to make stretch mistakes! We want to do so not by trying to do things incorrectly, but by trying to do things that are challenging. When we make stretch mistakes we want to reflect, identify what we can learn, and then adjust our approach to practice, until we master the new level of ability. Then we want to identify a new area of challenge and continue stretching ourselves.

The aha-moment mistakes

Another positive type of mistake, but one that is harder to strive or plan for, is the aha-moment mistake. This happens when we achieve what we intend to do, but then realize that it was a mistake to do so because of some knowledge we lacked which is now becoming apparent. There are lots of examples of this, such as:

  • When we lack the content knowledge: e.g. not finding water, we try to extinguish a fire with alcohol, which we didn’t realize is flammable.
  • When we find there is more nuance than we realized: e.g. in our painting, we color a sun near the horizon as yellow, and later notice that the sun does not always look yellow.
  • When we make incorrect assumptions: e.g. we try to help someone else, thinking that help is always welcome, but we find out that the person did not want help at that moment.
  • When we misremember: e.g. we call a friend for their birthday on the right date, but the wrong month.

We can gain more aha moments from mistakes by being reflective. We can ask ourselves What was unexpected? Why did that result occur? What went well and what didn’t? Is there anything I could try differently next time? We can also ask people around us for information we may not be aware of, or for ideas for improvement.

Four

The sloppy mistakes

Sloppy mistakes happen when we’re doing something we already know how to do, but we do it incorrectly because we lose concentration. We all make sloppy mistakes occasionally because we’re human. However, when we make too many of these mistakes, especially on a task that we intend to focus on at the time, it signals an opportunity to enhance our focus, processes, environment, or habits.

Sometimes sloppy mistakes can be turned into aha moments. If we make a mistake because we’re not focused on the task at hand, or we’re too tired, or something distracted us, upon reflection we can gain aha-moments on how to improve, such as realizing we’re better at certain tasks after a good night’s sleep, or that if we silence our gadgets or close our doors we can focus better.

The high-stakes mistakes

Sometimes we don’t want to make a mistake because it would be catastrophic. For example, in potentially dangerous situations we want to be safe. A big mistake from the person in charge of security in a nuclear power plant could lead to a nuclear disaster. We don’t want a school bus driver to take a risk going too fast making a turn, or a student in that bus to blindfold the bus driver. In those cases, we want to put processes in place to minimize high-stakes mistakes. We also want to be clear with students about why we don’t want the risk-taking behavior and experimentation in these situations, and how they’re different from learning-oriented tasks.

In a high-stakes event, if we don’t achieve our goal of a high test score or winning the championship, let’s reflect on the progress we’ve made through time, on the approaches that have and haven’t helped us grow, and on what we can do to grow more effectively. Then let’s go back to spending most of our time practicing, challenging ourselves, and seeking stretch mistakes and learning from those mistakes. On the other hand, if we achieve our target score or win a championship, that’s great. Let’s celebrate the achievement and how much progress we’ve made. Then let’s ask ourselves the same questions. Let’s go back to spending most of our time practicing, challenging ourselves, and growing our abilities.

We’re all fortunate to be able to enjoy growth and learning throughout life, no matter what our current level of ability is. Nobody can ever take that source of fulfillment away from us.

Let’s be clear

Mistakes are not all created equal, and they are not always desirable. In addition, learning from mistakes is not all automatic. In order to learn from them the most we need to reflect on our errors and extract lessons from them.

If we’re more precise in our own understanding of mistakes and in our communication with students, it will increase their understanding, buy-in, and efficacy as learners.

This article was first published in the Mindset Works newsletter, written by Eduardo Briceño.


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