The Blog

As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Making Mistakes… A Positive Experience

Mistakes are not failures. That is how we learn. Adults
and children who fear making mistakes are not risk takers.

When a mistake is made, we profit from it, first by recognizing
the error and then by admitting it to ourselves and to anyone
else affected by it. By not admitting our mistakes, we deny
ourselves the information necessary to take the next step in
learning. Remember, trial and error is one of the great driving
engines for human progress.

An informative example comes from a semiconductor company
making computer chips. There are two branches to this company,
one in California and one in Texas. Both have identical
procedures and equipment. However, the average percentage of
flawed chips emerging from the Texas plant is much higher and
this reduces their profit margin.

The difference between the two plants is that the one in
California encourages its workers to admit when they make a
mistake. They are not reprimanded but are asked how they can
help their co-workers avoid making the same mistake. This
information gained from its workers helps the company avoid
similar mistakes. This is very important in making chips
because when a mistake is identified in the lengthy production
process, that batch of chips can be eliminated early thus saving
the cost of the remaining steps.

In contrast, the Texas plant takes disciplinary action
against employee errors. This produces an atmosphere of fear and
mistrust in the plant. As a result, the mistakes are hidden and
the employees instead of learning from them, perpetuate them. As
a result, the company devotes a great deal of expensive
apparatus and labor on already flawed chips.

School systems can learn a lesson from this. When students
make mistakes in applying the tools of learning to reach a
solution to a problem, they should not be reprimanded and given
a failing grade. Instead of saying sentences like, “Wrong,
John. Mary tell him the right answer.” , it is much more helpful
to say, “John what steps did you take to arrive at that
solution?” Many times, in an atmosphere of inquiry and not
punishment, the student discovers his own mistakes and learns
from them. The other students are helped to avoid the same
mistakes by means of classroom discussions.

This process is helpful in any new learning situation. One
very insightful supervisor did not tell her student teachers what
they had done wrong in the lesson, instead she asked the
following questions after an observation:

What did you like best about that lesson?
If you had it to do over, what would you change or do
How can I help you do it better the next time?

These questions make it easier for the student teachers to
admit that they may have made some mistakes in the lesson but
they will learn from them. The next time, they will do it
better. In an atmosphere of learning, not fear, they then can
take responsibility for their actions. Otherwise, they might try
to cover up their mistakes by saying it was not their fault the
lesson did not go well and the children did not learn from it, it
was the children’s fault.

Parents are most helpful to their children when they admit
that they are not perfect and make mistakes too. An atmosphere
in the home where it is safe to make mistakes is very encouraging
and is conducive to true learning.

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