Does Mistake = Wrong?

Simple questions can lead to complex discussions. Recently, an instructor at another school asked about effectively setting up a new course in an online learning platform. He wondered whether or not to use the program’s default settings for reducing credit for correctly answering questions in homework assignments only after opening a “hint.” Just a simple, honest question, right?

pay-attention-in-class_7-ways-to-improve-your-grades-in-schoolNot so much. Several colleagues weighed in with their opinions, yielding plenty of fodder for thought. It seemed to me that the heart of the matter was this question: How do we view mistakes in the learning process? And, for us pleasureinlearning thinkers, a further question might be: How do we leverage students’ inevitable errors (and our own!) to make learning more pleasurable and consequently more effective.

First, it is clear that no one derives joy from a bunch of red marks on a paper. (Unless, of course, you are a sadistic instructor who enjoys making those red marks, in which case we beg you to act for the common good and resign immediately.) I have never heard a student say, “Oh, good!  I missed this question and you caught it!  Thanks so much for letting me know!” And changing the marks to purple or green doesn’t seem to help much—I’ve tried it.walking

Next, normal human development suggests that we don’t get much right on the first try. This includes the important stuff, like pulling up to a standing position, walking across the floor, saying our first words, writing our own names, riding a bike, cooking a meal, falling in love, or starting an I.V. Our first efforts are not usually our best.

And yet we persevere. We learn to walk and talk and cook and love and some of us can start I.Vs. There’s something in us that wants to keep trying unless someone has punished us for the effort. So what do we enjoy? Why do we keep trying?

Because maybe, just maybe, this time we’ll get it right. And that feels so good. Remember the first time the bike took off with you on the seat and didn’t fall over? Grand, simply grand. And why do people stay up long after sensible bedtimes trying to defeat the next level of Candy Crush? Because the challenge seems achievable.

mistakes-learn-from-themSo maybe we should deliberately, thoughtfully, intentionally embrace mistakes as part of the learning process. We can view them, and help our students to view them, as necessary and valuable steps on the path to getting it right. This captures it perfectly:

“If you fail, never give up because F.A.I.L. means “first Attempt In Learning”
– End is not the end, if fact E.N.D. means “Effort Never Dies”
– If you get No as an answer, remember N.O. means “Next Opportunity”.
So Let’s be positive. ”               —–Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam




One comment on “Does Mistake = Wrong?

  1. Brian Leslie Coatney says:

    Great post. I’ve sure seen it that love of subject must overcome fear of error. It’s good to learn to kiss and make up with blown assignments.

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