Science of Learning: Learning through Mistakes

Science of Learning: Learning through Mistakes

Jesse Martin 09/03/2020 3

If you have heard the phrase that “we learn from our mistakes” you may wonder why mistakes are unacceptable in schools. The very places that we go to learn.

One of the core traditions that underlie education is medieval clerical training. When a cleric is copying a manuscript in order for another person to have a copy, a mistake is unacceptable. From this tradition, we are in an educational world where a mistake is unacceptable. The more mistakes you make, the less you are paid in the currency of education – grades.

Teachers in our current educational world are always looking for a convergent answer – the right one. Even open-ended essay questions – the assessment that so many in higher education fall back on in a claim that they are looking for real thinking – are convergent in nature. Creativity is not welcome. Answer the question that is set and return the answer that is right. Any mistakes will be punished.

The work on mindsets tells us that punishing mistakes cements a fixed mindset. The awarding of grades identifies what a person is. Especially since students tend to be fairly consistent in their grades. The mistakes I make mean that I am a “C” grade student. There is no encouragement for growth. No opening for a student to embrace a growth mindset. They become what they believe, a “C” grade student. The mistakes you make define you.

Children learn very early that mistakes will cost them in terms of grades. As a result, they become cautious in their approach to learning, focusing on playing it safe in order to maximize their return. Children, especially bright ones, take the fewest risks because of the chance of making a mistake. Risks and experiments lead to mistakes. Mistakes lead to punishment – bad grades. Tugend tells us that doing well under our current system means that we end up adopting behaviors that directly conflict with learning. To do well in the current system, students adopt a fixed mindset – don’t do anything that will jeopardize what you are, which is defined by your grades.

What does this tell us about our “perfect”, straight “A” students? These are the students who have become the best at conforming and returning the exact right answer that the teacher is looking for.

In education, only the exact answer leads to “learning”. However, this is not how learning works in the real world. When we make mistakes, we learn not to repeat them, and we find out what does work and what does not work. Learning in the real world is based almost entirely on mistakes or doing something wrong and going back to do it again in an attempt to figure out how to do it right. From a baby learning to walk to a brilliant scientist trying to figure out that final piece of the puzzle. Edison has been reported to have said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Talk about mistakes. I wonder what grade he would have received today.

According to Donaldson, many subjects taught in school could actually be learned better if mistakes were allowed according to. As an example, take science. In the real world, science is about gathering data. Data is still useful even if the experiment gives you results that do not match your expectations. In mathematics, some of the most beautiful breakthroughs have been built on ideas that were, in the past, considered wrong.

When trapped in a fixed mindset, students view mistakes as an endless cycle of failures. Mistakes lead to bad grades and bad grades mean that you are worthless and stupid. How can we help learners move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset when mistakes are a sign of failure, and as all of us make mistakes and the world comes in only two shades, black and white? I make mistakes all the time, but I refuse to allow them to define me – any of you who regularly read my writing can attest to that. How many of our children or young adult students have that kind of resilience? In higher education, as in all the other educational endeavors that our students have been in, mistakes are bad and mean that they are a failure – or on their way to be a failure unless they can somehow stop making mistakes.

According to the psychological definition of learning, learning is a process that takes place through experience. Although memorizing facts can technically be an “experience”, I’m not sure many of you (under 50) would want to claim that memorization is all that important anymore in the age of information abundance. Because of the way our brains are structured, memorization will almost always lead to mistakes. The system itself fosters beliefs that become fixed mindsets.

Mistakes are useful. Mistakes bring new ideas and breakthroughs. Punishing mistakes does nothing but encourage conformity and discourage creativity. If students were encouraged to learn rather than look for the ever-important converging answer – right or wrong – they would have a better chance of reaching their full creative potential. Students should not have to see mistakes as evidence of their own personal inferiority.

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  • Tony Goetz

    If students are capable of learning from their failures, they will become more proactive and creative.

  • Amit Verma

    Higher education has to change

  • Denis Flynn

    Thoughtful piece

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.

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