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The Taxonomy of Mistake Literacy: 7 Levels of Learning

by Zak Cohen, Middle School Director at the St. Francis School 

Mistake Literacy is a mindset that seeks to cultivate in students the skills and competencies to recognize, react to, and repair their mistakes. It is about making the most of what is natural and unavoidable to the learning process – the process itself. According to Hattie & Yates (2013), “we go to lessons because we ‘do not know’ and thus errors, mistakes, and not knowing are the key to all subsequent learning.” 

Errors occur at the edge of knowledge and experience; thus, errors must be accepted not just as a byproduct of learning, but as central to the learning process. The trouble is that “human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from experience…are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” This is where cultivating a mistake-literate mindset comes in. 

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. 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.

Figure 1. Cohen’s Taxonomy of Mistake Literacy

According to Cohen’s Taxonomy of Mistake Literacy, there are seven levels of learning that may result from mistake-making. This model classifies such learning into levels of consciousness and specificity, as informed by the presence or absence of engagement, motivation, and choice, in addition to circumstantial factors. The lowest level along the Taxonomy, and thus the first to be discussed, is what occurs when a mistake is made and no learning follows. 

Learning is Non-existent

When learning is non-existent, a mistake is made, brought to the level of consciousness, and summarily dismissed. Typically, when a mistake is made, learning is the natural counterbalance. At this level, equilibrium is not sought. Mistake-making becomes the starting point for a positive feedback loop, wherein this lack of intended learning amplifies the magnitude of the mistake, which, in turn, accelerates future mistake-making. Without learning to intervene, mistake-making goes unregulated, resulting in a divergence from the natural symbiosis that exists between mistakes and learning.

A setting where learning would have the potential to be non-existent could be a freshman-level college course. A student who is taking this course might have no intention to continue taking courses in this particular discipline, but is registered because it is part of their university’s core curriculum. The professor returns the student’s final examination. The student earns a respectable B. The student notes the grade, but does not bother to flip through the examination to see where mistakes might have been made. The student is ultimately satisfied with this mark. As such, the student places the examination in their backpack to be thrown out once they get back to their dorm.

In this instance, student motivation is low, engagement is low, and choice is altogether non-existent. Even if this student wanted to repair their mistakes, the course is over and Winter Break has begun. In this instance, circumstances have conspired to ensure that no learning could occur.  

Learning is Unconscious

The second level along the taxonomy is when learning from a mistake is unconscious: a mistake is made, that mistake is acknowledged, and the learning becomes instinctual. In this instance, the learning, though present, does not exist at the conscious level. Rather, the learning is an unconscious response to external stimuli. In this way, the learning, albeit useful, is limited because its level of transferability is finite. As a result, this method of learning does not prime future learning to occur.

Picture a child who touches a hot stove. The mistake is brought to the conscious level almost immediately, but the learning does not rise to that level of consciousness. The child, or even the adult that child will grow into, will avoid touching hot things, but they are not actively conscious of the choice to not do so. Instead, it becomes a matter of instinct to not place one’s hand on a hot stovetop while cooking. This learning has value, of course, but this method of learning cannot be scaled, and thus, does not allow for growth. Consider that this method of learning applied to crossing a busy intersection would mean that one would need to be hit by a car before learning that it is important to look both ways. 

In this instance, motivation is high, engagement is low, and choice is low. When cooking, one can be reading a recipe book, engaged in conversation with their spouse, and listening to a podcast all while not touching the hot stove. In this way, the learning is present, but it is not conscious.

Learning is Accidental

The third level along the taxonomy is when learning from a mistake is accidental: a mistake is made, there is an awareness of the mistake having been made, and that mistake is repaired; however, the fact that the mistake was repaired is a matter of chance. In this instance, non-intentional actions led to the desired outcome. This outcome, though serendipitous, is not arrived at in a systematic or replicable way. Rather, one is seeking to rectify their mistake by groping for solutions. This is a moment of mismatch between the self and the situation. One knows what resolution should look like, but doesn’t know how to get there. As such, they engage in trial and error.

An example of this would be when one’s car breaks down on the side of the road for the first time. One knows that the sought-after outcome is for their car to start, however, they do not have the skills or knowledge to arrive at that endpoint with any degree of systematic or intentional thought or action. Thus, to move towards their desired outcome, the individual would begin by applying relevant systematics to the situation (i.e., applying their general knowledge of cars by checking the tires, the engine, and the oil) until that well eventually runs dry. At that point one begins to grope until they find something that causes the car to start again. Just because one got their car to start does not mean that one has learned anything from their unsuccessful trials that could be applied if this same situation were to arise again down the road. 

In this instance, motivation is high, engagement is moderate, and choice is limited. Engagement is moderate because one is focused on the outcome, rather than the process; thus, preventing further and deeper learning from occurring. Additionally, while choice is not low, it is limited by the gap that exists between one’s knowledge and the situation at hand. 

Learning is Misapplied

The fourth level along the taxonomy is when learning from a mistake is misapplied: a mistake is made, that mistake is acknowledged, and learning results; however, that learning is not fully understood and thus is likely to be misapplied. While learning is present, the depth of that learning is insufficient to carry one forward into the next novel situation. Because there are limitations to the learning at this level, it is also possible for the learner to make false assumptions, as the learner might not fully understand the “why” underlying the learning.

To once again use the example of a broken-down car, one might attempt a number of fixes to get the car to restart. After unsystematically fiddling with the engine, the car magically does restart. One might walk away from this situation certain that they now know what to do the next time their car should breakdown. However, the reality is that the car had simply overheated and needed time to cool down. It was just a matter of coincidence that the car had cooled down after the individual fiddled with the engine.

In this instance, motivation is high, engagement is high, and choice remains limited. At this level, one is more engaged with the process of repairing their mistake, but their understanding of that learning is in danger of being misapplied in the future. Additionally, choice remains limited, as one is anchored to their existing schematics.

Learning is Incomplete

The fifth level along the taxonomy is when learning from a mistake is incomplete: a mistake is made, there is an awareness of that mistake, and learning occurs; but the learning is limited because it is not connected to the whole. In other words, the learner cannot make sense of the learning within the big picture, and instead only sees a fraction of what is going on. In this case, learning has occurred, but one does not see the full scope of the learning – the learner cannot construct a larger constellation of understanding. So, while this level of learning puts one on the path towards systematic learning, the learner lacks the necessary context to arrive there.

An example of incomplete learning that would be familiar to any language arts teacher would be when providing feedback on an essay. When a student turns in an essay with a strong narrative but weak conventions (e.g., spelling, punctuation, grammar), the feedback will often revolve around helping that student improve their fluency with conventions. On their next essay, that student becomes so hyperfocused on improving their conventions that their strength in developing a coherent narrative begins to break down. In this example, the learner understood the feedback around conventions, but did not understand how to apply this learning within the larger context of their writing. 

In this instance, motivation is high, engagement is high, and choice is high, but generalizability is non-existent. The learner has focused so intently on a single deficit that they lose the forest for the trees, and things around the mistake that were once stable begin to break down.

Learning is Systemic

The sixth level along the taxonomy is when learning from a mistake is systematic: a mistake is made, recognized, repaired, and reflected on. This is the aim of Mistake Literacy. This process involves high-levels of intentionality, stemming from the interaction between mindset and self-efficacy. Through the application of this process, one develops an understanding of the learning, the context in which the learning occurs, and how to apply the learning to novel situations moving forward.

There is a universality to systematic learning, as its application in one context can be translated to others. By following the steps of Mistake Literacy to repair one’s errors on a math exam, for example, one is now better positioned to recognize, react to, and repair their mistakes in other contexts. Each passthrough of Mistake Literacy strengthens one’s ability to learn from mistakes. Thus, even when circumstances change, these same steps can still be followed. In this instance, motivation is high, engagement is high, and choice is high, as one’s mindset is process-oriented and actively seeks to utilize all possible resources at their disposal, as opposed to relying on schematics.

Learning is Intuitive

The seventh level along the taxonomy is when learning from a mistake is intuitive: a mistake is not yet made, but one can sense its arrival and thus seeks to address it before it ever manifests. Following countless passthroughs of Mistake Literacy, one develops an intuitive schematic to recognize, react to, and repair mistakes before the mistake even materializes. Whereas systematic learning is actively and continually interactive, intuitive learning is integrated. While systematic learning can be thought of as hyperconscious, intuitive learning can be thought of as the other end of unconsciousness.

An example of intuitive learning comes from really high performing professionals who can sense that a conversation in a meeting is going off-track before it ever does. This person does not even fully experience the mistake before seeking to address it. This is because they have developed a schematic that allows them to self-correct before the mistake is fully formed. In this instance, motivation is high, engagement is instinctual, and choice is grounded in past experience, as one is tapping into an existing schematic to recognize, react to, and repair a mistake before it has even occurred. 

Table 2. Summary of Cohen’s Taxonomy of Mistake Literacy Characteristics

In all, Cohen’s Taxonomy of Mistake Literacy is designed to distinguish and individuate the various levels of learning that can occur as a result of mistake-making. The taxonomy deliberately focuses on levels of learning, rather than types of mistake-making. Mistake-making is a necessary precondition for learning to occur, but Mistake Literacy is ultimately less concerned with the nature of mistakes and more concerned with the nature of learning.

To learn more about Mistake Literacy and how you as a learner, educator, school leader, or parent can build this mindset in yourself and others, check out this YouTube playlist from The Core Collaborative’s Lunch & Learn series.

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.

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