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



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