To err is human.

Alexander Pope

Making mistakes is an inevitable part of life. We’re all wrong about something at some point. Equally obviously, contending with failure, learning to drag ourselves up by the bootstraps when we fall down and persist in the face of setbacks is part and parcel of human existence. But is making mistakes something to aim for? Should failure be celebrated? 

Clearly, in some areas of human endeavour mistakes cannot be tolerated. We are much more tolerant of failure in education than in, say, aviation, because the stakes are so much lower. If we mess things up no one dies. It’s hard to imagine a pilot saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”

Despite that, there’s an awful lot of ill-thought out, earnest advice in praise of mistakes and failure out there. Why have we come to eulogise this sorry state of affairs? Why would teachers prioritise getting the answer wrong over getting it right?

Now, you might think I’m wrong to say that any teachers think this. I conducted a very unscientific survey on twitter with the following result:

As you can see, over a quarter of the teachers who responded think that it’s a good idea to encourage children to make lots of mistakes, and only 15% see it as their duty to help students minimise the mistakes they make. Of course, it would be foolish to read too much into this as we don’t know precisely what the teachers involved really think, but there are a great many teacher blogs which valourise failure and making mistakes. Rather than embarrassing anyone else, it might be fairest to consider some the blogs I’ve written myself. In June 2012 I wrote a post called The Art of Failing in which I said, “Obviously getting something wrong, performing poorly and making mistakes is uncomfortable. But these things are a part of life. An important part. Apart from all the stuff about failure being character forming there’s the more important consideration that if we only ever experience success then maybe we aren’t trying very hard?” I so much believed this to be true that I advocated giving children tasks at which they could not succeed:

You could make the time limits too tight or make the success criteria so impossibly exacting that there is no way they could meet them. Maybe you won’t give them all the required resources or maybe the task is so open-ended and vague that there simply isn’t a solution. Naturally enough, students will find this frustrating. They’ll want to give up. The point is that you need to unpick with them why it’s important to fail. Some students never fail at school; they find everything effortless. Others never seem to do anything else. The point is that working hard despite the chance of failing is difficult. We tend to focus on the product rather than the process. By removing the possibility of there being a successful product we can force students to focus on the process of learning. They will start to see that understanding and valuing the process will lead to the creation of better products and they will begin to see that it doesn’t matter if at first you don’t succeed: you can always fail better in the future.

I honestly thought this was a good idea. Mea culpa. Making mistakes for the sake of making mistakes isn’t something to be lauded, it’s absurd. The truth is that the vast majority of failure is spectacularly unproductive and prodigiously wasteful. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m categorically not claiming that mistakes are something to be ashamed of. As Daniel Dennett says in Intuition Pumps, “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them – especially not from yourself.” When we inevitably make mistakes we should learn from them and seek not to repeat them. Clearly there are times when we see students make intuitive leaps because of the level of struggle involved in trying to work on a problem. But then there are times – more than we should be comfortable with – when students keep making the same mistakes time and again with apparently no learning taking place.

This is partly to do with the type of subject students are learning about, and partly to do with the way the mistake is processed. When the subject domain is one in which we have probably evolved an innate capacity to learn then we tend to learn well from trial and error. These are biologically primary areas of knowledge. Watching young children learn to walk, speak and negotiate their environments is full of this kind of learning. Children make very predictable mistakes, watch the reactions and then revise their approach. Sometimes this happens because whatever they were trying to do simply didn’t work, and sometimes it’s down to correction from adults and the knowledge that even though some things might work, they’re simply ‘not done’. Here’s a selection of common grammatical mistakes which almost everyone learns are wrong and so stops making them.

Then there are biologically secondary areas of learning. It’s speculated that certain areas of human knowledge – mathematics, the physical sciences, psychology – are based on ‘folk’ disciplines. We all learn folk psychology (e.g. the rules of cheating) folk physics (the effects of gravity) and folk biology (understanding the differences between cats and dogs) with little or no formal instruction, but the deeper reality of science can be hard to learn because it contradicts what we intuitively believe about the world. Schools exist to teach this type of knowledge. Mistakes is commonplace and, without careful attention, students will either continue to repeat their errors, or learn a process with no understanding of why they should do it that way. Because academic subjects are culturally specific and often counter-intuitive, we can’t rely on students’ prior knowledge of the world to act as a useful guide. We need to explain things which otherwise wouldn’t make sense, critique and question these things, and then help them to express their own, new and improved, understanding of the world.

In English literature, for instance, understanding that writers choose words and arrange those words for particular effects isn’t something most people acquire just from learning how to communicate. Usually we just use the first words that come to mind and arrange them without much consideration. It therefore makes sense to suppose poets and playwrights do something similar and it comes as something of a shock to discover that English teachers think there are other, deeper reasons for the passages they have us read. When they ask, “What do you think the writer’s trying to say here?” we have no idea. Why wouldn’t they just say whatever they wanted to say as clearly as possible, just like we do? Asking students for an uneducated opinion is a bit unfair, because although they’ll know a lot about the world, most of what they know will be biologically primary and hence at odds with academic knowledge. We need to tell them what we, and others, think about why and how a writer might be trying to express. And then we need to get them to see that there are other, possibly better, possibilities. We need to crowbar open their certainties and show them that anything can be questioned, but only if you know enough to ask decent questions. Then, once they’ve acquired a reasonable breadth of academic knowledge and the habit of critiquing that knowledge, then we can teach them to construct analytical essays which reveal new and insightful ways to think about the written word.

This process will be littered with mistakes, blind alleys and frustration. Sadly, somewhere along the line many children seem to learn that making these mistakes is a source of shame and something to be covered up. This is, perhaps, the biggest mistake of all. Dennett offers this advice:

So when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It’s not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves), and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions. Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities to make grand mistakes, just so you can then recover from them.

So here’s what I think. First we need to be far more intolerant of repeated errors. If students continue making the same mistakes then they embed bad habits and use up limited working memory trying to grapple with the basics. As far as possible, getting the basics right should be automated so that students have more room to think about the important considerations. Second, I’ve come to believe that success should come before struggle. In this post I set out a three-step process for teaching: 1. Encode success. 2. Promote internalisation. 3. Increase challenge.

The point is not that students should sink or swim, it’s that they should all swim.