The Taxonomy of Mistake Literacy
by Zak Cohen, Middle School Director at the St. Francis School
In 2009, President Obama spoke to a group of students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. As someone who had readily and unabashedly admitted to his mistakes as a youth, and how these missteps informed the adult he had become, he humbly but stridently impressed upon his audience the importance of learning from one’s mistakes.
“You can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently…If you get a bad grade…it just means you need to spend more time studying.”
Anyone listening to this speech would invariably nod along to President Obama’s rhetoric. This is because learning from one’s mistakes is an idea that is far from novel – it is both ancient and perennial. Learning from mistakes transcends time, culture, and place.
Consider the fact that there is no barrier for entry: people living in any time period and at any socioeconomic level have all had equal access to mistakes. And yet, in spite of its universality it is also one of the most untapped and underutilized learning resources at people’s disposal. Largely, this is because there has not been extensive research done on how people actually learn from their mistakes.
There remains a yet-to-be reconciled chasm between what is axiomatic to peoples’ experiences – “Mistakes are the best teachers” – with the sort of opaque alchemy of how mistakes translate into learning. Because there is a dearth of research into this process, the process itself remains murky, and thus, people’s obstinance around the benefits of mistakes persists.
For example, Yang, Potts, and Shanks (2017) found that even when study participants’ attention was drawn to the benefits of errorful generation on information retrieval from memory, study participants continued to prioritize less effective study strategies that did not involve mistake-making. This adverse response to mistake-making would seem to suggest that people would prefer not to dip their toes in the murky waters of effortful learning, even if error generation actually improves learning outcomes.
This aversion to engage with mistakes can, for some people, be amplified to such a point that it warrants its very own diagnosis in the medical nomenclature: atychiphobia. So, while President Obama is right to remind students to learn from their failures, this rightness requires more than rhetoric – it requires a roadmap.
Learning from mistakes, as President Obama implies, starts with a shift in mindset. Consider that, while the pessimist might see their mistakes as a justification to cease their pursuit of achieving mastery, the optimist knows that the upshot of mistake-making is learning. The optimist understands that mistakes are really opportunities for feedback and direction. So, mindset is the starting block, but it is not the finish line. Even for the optimist, learning is not a guaranteed byproduct of mistake-making, as one cannot simply will learning into existence.
Or, more exactly, mindset alone cannot achieve the sort of learning that Mistake Literacy aims for. The sort of learning that Mistake Literacy aims for is systematic and intuitive. It has depth and texture and resonance, paving the way for future learning to occur. There are many kinds of learning that can follow a mistake; thus, learning from a mistake does not in and of itself make one mistake-literate. It’s a bit more precise than that.
Cohen’s Taxonomy of Mistake Literacy seeks to articulate and classify the many kinds of learning that may result from mistake-making, ranging from non-existent to intuitive. The purpose of identifying each kind of learning is to contextualize and individuate the sought-after learning that comes from the application of Mistake Literacy. In this way, the aim of Mistake Literacy can be understood in both relative and absolute terms along the broader spectrum of possible learning outcomes.
Moreover, the advantage of a taxonomic structure is that it presents learning from mistakes in its truest form, which is as a progression. Experience at the lower levels is a prerequisite for learning at the higher levels to occur. Mistake Literacy is a virtuous cycle that produces better and better results each time through.
As people apply Mistake Literacy, they move from the lower regions of the taxonomy to the upper regions. In this way, the taxonomy is designed to provide people with a roadmap of where they are and where they are trying to go.
Zak Cohen is the Middle School Director at the St. Francis School in Louisville, Kentucky. He has taught Social Studies, Language Arts, and English as a Second Language in independent and international schools in the United States, China, and South Africa. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Education Leadership and Management at Drexel University.