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When Is a Mistake Not a Mistake?

When my sons were learning to walk and they fell down, I cheered loudly, giving them the confidence to get up and try again. And then, when they were building their LEGO and one of them accidentally bumped into it and broke the other’s creation, I would always jump in with, “Oops! No big deal. Let’s build it again even better.” It was important to show them that mistakes were normal and it was easy to bounce back. When they were little, failing was part of the journey, and it was accepted.

While it was LEGO, water spills at the dinner table or calling their teacher “mom” when they were younger, the journey continues today as they are forced to accept and embrace bigger mistakes. 

More importantly, I see how students respond to mistakes at school and how this enhances or detracts from their learning. When our children are small, we applaud their mistakes, but what happens when they get to school? Should our view of mistakes change or should we continue to applaud and encourage them even more? After all, Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new,” and we want our children to keep trying new things.

For many kids, their mistakes are directly connected to their self-worth and value. Theorist David Elkind’s description of an adolescent’s sense of an “imaginary audience” does not seem so imaginary these days. Kids are watching each other closely at school and online. They judge, compare and evaluate one another. Mistakes can feel like a source of embarrassment, stress and even humiliation. They do not want to make mistakes because of what others may think of them and how they feel when they do. Our brains, however, make good use of our mistakes and reconcile contradictory information in order to build more accurate, durable solutions. 

School has often been the place where high performance is celebrated. Children learn quickly that answers are right or wrong, true or false. Unfortunately, this means that they may choose to stick with a safe answer to avoid taking risks. 

I would argue that we have to change our school culture to embrace the mistakes that our students are trying to avoid. This is what we aim to do at Bialik — to emphasize to our students the importance of the learning process and not just focusing on the results. 

In her 2017 paper, Learning from Errors, Janet Metcalfe says that avoiding and ignoring mistakes at school seems to be the rule in many classrooms and it may be holding our education system back. She argues that students may actually benefit from making mistakes (and correcting them) rather than avoiding them at all costs. Making mistakes is a valuable part of the learning process. Innovation, creativity and discovery can only come if we give children the freedom and the opportunity to fail. This principle guided the creation of our STEM program — where we challenge students to solve problems, to tap into prior knowledge, extend their thinking, and open their minds while being encouraged to make and learn from mistakes.

The most important thing that we need to teach our kids is to focus on errors and not ignore them. We hope to teach our students to fail first and then to learn. Our teachers are finding new ways to not give our students the “correct answers” and to praise students for taking risks and solving problems — correctly or incorrectly — on their own. This leads to discussion about common errors and exploration of the ways to get to the correct and incorrect answers. According to Dr. Amy L. Eva, “If we embrace and even study errors in our classrooms, students may actually learn more.”

Our Bialik teachers are working to help students examine the ideas of effort and persistence, with messages such as: “Keep trying and don’t give up,” “Even though this is tough, you will find a way,” and “I see your strengths and I believe in you.” They teach students to sit with the uncertainty of not knowing: “Let’s try this another way,” and “Be kind to yourself when you are confused — it’s ok.” 

Hearing these messages at school is not enough and this is where the home-school partnership can provide reinforcement. It is so important to encourage our kids to not see mistakes as something to be dreaded and avoided, but as part of learning. 

So the next time we sit down to set our own goals, I challenge each one of us to add “make a mistake” to our list. Mistakes give us space to find our strength, to try something new, to open our minds to creativity and to think in a different way. 

It’s not how many times we fail, but rather, how many times we get back up! Let’s cheer ourselves on as we fall down, knowing that we have the privilege of getting up and building bigger and better. 

Shoshana Taitz

Director of Curriculum