Mistakes are a Natural and Vital Part of Learning

“Theoretically everyone should be happy to lose an argument because that way you end up with more than you had at the beginning.”    

-Edward de Bono


Learning by it’s very meaning requires us to expand into areas beyond our comfort zone. Making mistakes is a big fear outside that zone. In the old paradigm we push students out of their comfort zone and then put in place punishments for making mistakes. I am proposing we encourage students out of their comfort zone with love, fun and support. As soon as something is learned it becomes a part of our comfort zone and so we need to feel supported in our efforts to keep stepping beyond that comfort. When a child learns to walk we encourage it knowing it will falter and stumble and take time to develop the skill. Even beyond childhood we still falter and stumble at times.

Without the freedom to make mistakes, there is NO FREEDOM!

An interesting side effect of discouraging mistakes is that it actually has the opposite effect. In a space where mistakes are inevitable but discouraged there is a resistance to participate on the one hand and a resistance to succeeding on the other. Any teacher who isn’t aware of the taunts that so often accompany a successful person in the company of unsuccessful people is naive. I mention in another chapter that I discourage hierarchy in the learning environment. I actually encourage mistakes and use them in a productive way to further the learning. A mistake is an opportunity to find a new solution that is more likely to work and create an outcome that is preferred. We are equal in that we are all open to making mistakes. At the beginning of a new learning experience I get the students to play around with the concept and discover the things that work and the things that don’t work. We then look at ways to eliminate the things that don’t work. This way we incorporate many of the other aspects of the new paradigm. A great strategy for this process is De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats and others similar strategies. I strongly encourage incorporating these processes into learning in schools and homes.   Everyone can participate.

Students who learn quickest are then delegated as teachers and supporters to students who are still seeking their solutions. The class can bond together with this process using analogies like, if this class is a chain, then the chain is only as strong as the weakest link.   It is to everyone’s advantage to help those who are having difficulty with the present learning. When we all can understand, we are a stronger group (or a stronger chain). The atmosphere in a class that is working supportively in the  learning process is more friendly than one that is looking to be ‘better than’ each other, or looking to make fun of others’ mistakes so as to gain advantage.

When mistakes are being discouraged it actually turns the focus towards the mistakes, but in a negative way. When mistakes are encouraged they blend into the process and provide the fun and stimulus for success and expansive, new learning. If we are to discourage mistakes we would set up impossible scenarios of perfection, potential humiliation, shame, inadequacy, embarrassment, anger, jealousy, resistance and fear. Again, these are not the desired experiences for sacred beings and definitely not fun environments for learning anything.

These are the very things to eradicate from all learning environments because they are counter productive to the very process I profess to be undertaking. Encumbered by traditional thinking, we adapt to these scenarios of fear and call them ‘normal’ and accept them. The result is that these behaviors blend into our comfort zone so that to be anything else or experience anything else becomes more frightening. Eventually students become more afraid of success than mistakes, so they make more mistakes than they need to for their learning. In turn, these students don’t use mistakes for the purpose of learning, but as a means of staying in their comfort zone. There are a lot of fears in classrooms.

New ideas cannot be explored without taking risks or making mistakes. The experience for the teacher or adult is the same. I am known for making lots of mistakes. I accept, own and acknowledge them to the students. I too am in my own learning experience every day.  I work to avoid setting myself up as the authority or the boss. I openly acknowledge my mistakes, especially as the students are quick to point them out to me. It is important to me to get off the pedestal that teachers are on, by wearing the tag ‘teacher’. I lose things, I forget things, and I miss things out and I don’t know all the answers. I accept these imperfect aspects of myself and I accept them equally in my students. They are always given another chance if an honest mistake is made.

Accepting mistakes as a natural part of the learning experience encourages self responsibility, humility, tolerance, compassion, honesty and trust. Students rarely lie when the fear of reprisal is absent. Those who continue to do so are still scared and hostile from years of humiliation from previous experiences, and only time, love and example will heal that attitude. I would rather have a few lies once in a while than condemn everyone to a system of fear. To deny in any form that mistakes are not natural and healthy is to lie to our young. To punish them for making them is hypocrisy and a denial of their potential and sacredness. ( * A reminder that my use of being ‘Sacred’ is  ….   Regarded with reverence; properly immune from violence, interference etc. .. which is intrinsic to this proposed paradigm).

There always seems to be those who ask, What if? What if we spoil children by being too soft on them? etc. Well, the what if’s disappear in the implementation of the whole paradigm. Mistakes are just mistakes. Disruptive behavior can be seen as a mistake in behavior and treated as a learning experience. It can be questioned. Does it work or does it not work? It is not ignored or condoned. It is an opportunity for a student to take responsibility for the impact of their behaviour, treated as a mistake and learn how to change and learn new behaviour that supports the function of the whole group. This requires awareness and loving attention from both teacher and students alike.All can participate in finding a solution. It requires vulnerability, to create an environment where it is safe to deal with the mistake in a way that embraces trust.

Ultimately fearing mistakes is more damaging. It impacts our self esteem, our self confidence, our ability to try new things, to move forward and to trust ourselves. Being willing to accept mistakes in ourselves and others builds self esteem, tolerance and a willingness to embrace new experiences. This can be learned. I, as teacher, need to learn to accept my mistakes. Maybe if as children we had been taught to understand the value of mistakes, we wouldn’t be so afraid of making them, especially in our classes. Being unafraid to make mistakes and accept them as natural allows us to accept responsibility for our behavior and our actions and products.

We are evolving humans. Education is more about people than books, machines, achievement or technology, therefore we need to learn to live with our evolving humanness. As we become tolerant of ourselves we encourage tolerance of others.

“Mistakes, anomalies, things that go wrong have often triggered new ideas and new insights. This is because such events take us outside the boundaries of “reasonableness” within which we are normally forced to work. These boundaries are the accepted summary of past experience and they are very jealously guarded, particularly by people who are themselves rather unlikely to have new ideas.”       -Edward de Bono p48



Solutions are Possibilities and Preferences

What is true in this moment may not be true in the next moment. So, what is truth?


“The creative challenge simply refuses to accept that the current way is necessarily the best way. The creative challenge assumes that the current way is just one way which happens to be there for a variety of reasons.    -Edward de Bono.

Dear Readers,

As I start this particular chapter, I am wondering if you are still here with me. Many times I have tried to share this approach with others and come up with all sorts of reactions. I will share them with you and perhaps it will help you make the choice to continue.

A teacher who was asked to take on a program I had developed, came to see what it entailed. She was a teacher of mathematics, highly regarded within the school. Following the explanation of the program she remarked that it was fantastic and it would be great if all subjects could be this way, but she declined to take the program on because it was too frightening for her. I respected her honesty and thanked her for her feedback on the program. Other responses come in the form of arguments that it won’t work, accompanied by excuses and scenarios too numerous and limiting to write here. No excuse I have heard stands up to my experiences and is usually an argument from and for the old paradigm. Having tried the whole of the new paradigm in some form and in a wide variety of situations, there are really no barriers as far as the children are concerned. The barriers are with the adults. This is not a judgement, but an observation which challenges our desire to change and step into this realm of the expanded sacred. How would we approach our young if we truly wanted them to know they are powerful, intelligent, magnificent, sacred beings? Can we allow ourselves to accept that within us?

If the teacher is not excited and even a bit nervous, then they are not opening to new expansive learning and teaching. This is not a fail safe formula. It is an alternative approach. Until the ideas and beliefs are embraced and the possibility accepted we remain unsupportive of the idea that there is another, better way. Very few supported Christopher Columbus when he wanted to sail around the world to prove it was round. There is always fear of the unknown and excitement at the same time when a new paradigm is proffered.

When students start accepting responsibility for their learning, which by default includes their behavior, they also tend to demonstrate a maturity that is sadly lacking in many so called adult scenarios. When learning negotiation skills, I make a conscious decision not to show how politicians debate in parliament. I am too embarrassed of their methodology. If the leaders of our country are not demonstrating desired behavior we need to look elsewhere. There are few role models to use to demonstrate the new paradigm. It is an ideal. As such it is unattainable in a completed form. It is something to strive for. Accepting this has been important, it leaves plenty of room for change and more new ideas.

I am sometimes told that I am courageous doing my work the way I do. Maybe I am. I tend to jump in because I want to know if it will work. Tackling something new does take courage. As I have embraced the changes, despite the bumpy ride , the stumbling and the not knowing, I have trusted my desire to find a better way to spur me on. If you too are thinking it takes courage, then I say be courageous, the rewards are well worth it. There has to be a better way. Even as I write this book I know that I will still be changing and looking for ways to improve. I haven’t found “the ” answer, just a possible solution. And that is what this chapter is all about. Everything in the world is changing. Education can’t stand still or even crawl at snails pace when it is dealing with the adults of our future.

Today we are faced with a multitude of local and world problems that need solutions. Problems that have emerged out of our focused striving for knowledge. Being right or wrong hasn’t solved the problems in our world. Accepting a variety of possibilities gives us more of a chance to find solutions. Believing in good and bad is a parallel belief to that of right and wrong. If you can see this connection you may more clearly see the impact. By default, to be right is to be good and to be wrong is to be bad. One cannot exist independently of the other in the school learning context. It is not the base upon which I play with these ideas. It’s like playing on a mine field. More fearful than fun.

We live in a world of paradox, yet this is ignored in much of the school system. It is too convenient to have a set or right answer. Seeing this on a world scale, we have laws that forbid us to kill, yet we have wars and as governments support one side or the other, accepting killing is a natural and unavoidable aspect. In some countries’ heroes are killers and in other killers are the criminals. Which is right and which is wrong? And who decides? Another paradox closer to the situation is the punishment imposed on students who litter and deface property, whilst we condone pollution in the community in the name of industry and progress. I have watched the growth of Street Art as it wound it’s way between the boundaries of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. To label anything as right or wrong is to close our minds to finding new solutions to existing and future problems. Life is not black or white. There are many gradients of grey in between. And guess what? There is also an even bigger range of colours to consider.

When a student does a maths problem and gets an unacceptable answer, it is more helpful to suggest that the solution is unworkable, rather than tell them that they are wrong. Is this just playing a game of semantics? I don’t believe it is. Being wrong has a different impact on our desire to learn than having a solution that won’t work. In one situation, we’re saying there is a correct answer already. So what’s the point of spending time going back and finding it? In the other situation, it feels different to go and find out why my solution won’t work.

I am reminded of the story of Thomas Edison when he was inventing the light bulb. It is recorded that he made many hundreds of light bulbs that didn’t work before he found the one that did. When he was chided for making so many wrong light bulbs, he responded that he had merely found light bulbs that didn’t work. To me there is profound wisdom in being able to see the difference. His choice to respond that way kept the motivation alive to find one that did work. Today we have new improved light bulbs. better than the ones he invented. So, was he right or wrong? It achieves nothing to answer such a question.

I am suggesting here that  the desire to find a range of possible solutions rather than the right answer and to foster this way of thinking in students is encouraged. It has a far greater creative component and encourages group processes for problem solving as the competitive element is diminished.

If I role model the thinking that every problem has a right or correct answer, I am also giving the message not to think creatively. It can foster thinking that the government has to solve things or that science has all the answers and this is not backed up in the world as we perceive it today. The past is not the appropriate direction to look for solutions to problems in the future. Far too often the past is where the problem was created. Deciding on one solution, calling it right and leaving it there without question or review is now outdated as a way to solve personal and global issues.

I have observed in areas of greater public profile the search for better solutions is intense. An example of this is the design of equipment used in the Olympic Games. In the cycling arena new materials used to construct the frames of the bikes, varieties of wheel designs, helmet designs and fabric and outfit designs for the riders keep changing, showing us that there are no specific solutions, only possibilities and those possibilities can be replaced with new possibilities in the future. I feel confident that this is endless and learning in education needs to embrace this in it’s approach. The speed at which computer technology is advancing is another example. This constant searching for new solutions needs to be a built in component of the learning process for the adults of this twenty first century. Wouldn’t it be great if children were constantly encouraged in all their areas of learning to think and solve problems and see their solutions as meaningful possibilities. I believe they would develop healthy attitudes towards change and problem solving which would be an asset to them as adults of the future.

In the context of the learning environment this challenges the autocracy of the teacher and plays on a level playing field.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”