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Help Students Learn From Mistakes

by Zak Cohen, Grade 7 Social Studies Teacher at the American International School of Johannesburg

The existing "grammar of schooling” might be a controversial one, but its disruption due to the outbreak of COVID-19 has left students around the world scrambling to schedule their own time. Students who had grown accustomed to being told when to eat, when to use the restroom, and when it’s appropriate to socialize, are now trying to establish their own routines in the wake of a sudden and unexpected increase in autonomy. 



Learning from home is also putting additional pressure on these so-called “digital natives” to overcome novel hurdles to access learning in the first place. Students must work through issues with internet connectivity, the unfamiliarity of asynchronous learning platforms, and delays in the feedback loop, since questions are now often being answered by teachers via email rather than face-to-face. 


In short, students are trying to replicate the entire school experience from their homes -- and, understandably, it has not been a smooth transition for many. 

On a Zoom session with my 7th grade advisory, one student raised her hand and shared what many students have been feeling: “I really am trying my best, but I just keep messing up. I miss deadlines, forget to read instructions, and don’t know where to submit my work. I try to fix it myself, but I just don't know where to start.” Since students are now responsible to own so much more of their learning, there is simply more opportunity for error. 

Of course, with every challenge, there is opportunity. 

It’s essential that during this time, we, as educators, are compassionate, kind, and supportive of our students, especially when the make mistakes. At the same time, we should see these mistakes as learning opportunities; otherwise, we might be leaving some of the most teachable moments on the table -- equipping students with the skills to learn from their errors, rather than be defeated by them. 

In an age widely defined by change, disruption, and uncertainty, one thing is for sure: students will make mistakes; what is uncertain is whether students will learn from them. As common as mistake-making is, learning from mistakes is not common at all. "Mistakes are the most undermined, undervalued way for learning to occur." And yet, students need to possess the confidence, independence, and skill to both navigate and learn from their mistakes. In short, our students need to become “mistake literate.”

To be mistake literate, one must have an eye towards optimizing one’s learning by recognizing, reacting to, and repairing the mistake. The importance of such a mindset is echoed widely across academic literature and across the globe. Studies from the Philippines, Germany, and Hong Kong find a strong correlation between mistake-making and learning, and one study from the United States of America even concluded that “an unwarranted reluctance to engage with errors may have held back American education.” 

Now, more than ever before, mistakes are an inevitable part of the learning process. In a future post, we’ll talk about how students can put themselves in position to learn from their mistakes, but, for now, let’s focus on what we, as teachers, can do to facilitate this process. 




How can teachers put students in a position to feel comfortable and confident engaging with their mistakes, rather than turning away from them? 

Embrace Humor: The research has found that humor can have a positive influence on errorful learning. “Humor has a much more disarming, leveling, humbling, and most importantly, comforting effect than many might admit….a professional playfulness can relax tensions, and create a more collegial atmosphere for content exploration.” This can be especially effective if a teacher is able to use mistakes as learning opportunities and explore the unintended issues that arise. If handled properly, humorous moments can offer springboards for inquiry. As part of a study done by The Learning Network, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that students agree with this sentiment: “The classes in which I succeed in most are the ones where the teachers are very funny [when we make mistakes].” Ultimately, teachers set the tone for learning, so when teachers approach mistake-making with a sense of humor, it can translate into students doing the same. 

Be Patient: When it comes to mistake-making, students need to know that they are not alone. This is only possible in a classroom that is guided by a teacher who exhibits practicality and patience. “I can just remind [students] that error is a part of life and a part of study, and that they should not paralyze themselves in pursuit of perfection. Instead, [students] should incorporate the possibility of making mistakes that might be beneficial to their learning experience.” In short, a teacher who similarly accepts the unavoidable reality of mistake-making is likely to give their students permission to do the same. 

Be Collaborative: Finally, an appetite for peer collaboration is essential. To support students in learning from their mistakes, teachers cannot operate in a silo; it must be something that students experience across all of their classes. Learning from errors requires strong teacher teamwork in terms of planning and implementation. “Teachers’ sense of shared responsibility and efficacy related to learning from errors...is associated with increased student engagement.” 

As Rahm Emanuel famously said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

What can we, as teachers, do in these uncertain times to help students embrace mistakes as opportunities?


Zachary Cohen is an international educator who has lived and taught in Morocco, China, South Africa, and the United States. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Management at Drexel University.

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