A Better Understanding of Mistakes Brings More Growth and Development for Both Students and Teachers

Posted by Rhonda Hodges on April 15, 2021

Throughout this past year, COVID-19 has reminded us that things don’t always go according to plan. The pandemic has required many of us to stretch our boundaries and adjust to new ways of life. When thinking about how the pandemic has affected both teachers and students, one can only imagine the scope of teachable life moments that have crossed their paths. With the weight of health, safety, stress, and a continuously changing school environment, it’s likely that both teachers and students have made their fair share of mistakes. Could this be a good thing, though? Mistakes are bound to happen, and most can be turned into a wonderful learning tool. Perhaps, by sharing mistakes, teachers can support students’ SEL, which in turn would help enhance their learning, confidence, and cooperative peer relationships. We thought we’d review the four types of mistakes that shine a light on growth opportunities for both teachers and students.

TYPES OF MISTAKES

Outlined below are the four types of mistakes classified by Eduardo Briceño, co-founder of Mindset Works. Obtaining a better understanding of these can help us determine how to learn from our mistakes and make space for freedom and adaptability in one’s teaching practice and for our students’ learning experience. We’ll look at the difference between stretch mistakes, aha-mistakes, sloppy mistakes, and high-stakes mistakes.

The Stretch Mistakes

The stretch mistake is considered a positive mistake, and one in which a student will likely find themselves making throughout their entire education. This type of mistake usually happens when a student is trying a new skill or learning a new lesson but doesn’t quite “get it” the first time. A new concept may be introduced by an educator, and it might be one or two levels higher than what the student has already learned. At this point, a few errors are bound to happen, and a student most likely could use some help in the process. 

For example, guiding students from the concept that all matter is made up of substances called elements, to the smallest unit of those elements called atoms, and then to the parts of an atom.

Again, these are positive mistakes, and certain patterns can be taken away from them, which serves as an invaluable tool for teachers. If, for example, a student continues to repeat the same stretch error to solve a problem, then the issue may be that they’re mindlessly going through the motions, rather than truly focusing on improving abilities. Alternatively, if a student is reaching too far beyond what they already know, then smaller “baby steps” may be needed.

The Aha-moment Mistakes

This type of mistake is also considered to be positive, although it’s harder to strive or plan for. The aha-moment mistakes happen when a learner achieves what was intended or obtained an even desirable result in the end, but it was due to a mistake being made because of some knowledge that was lacking and is now apparent. Even though we’re left with a positive outcome, more is gained from aha moments by being reflective and asking concluding questions to help us better understand the aha-moment mistake.

There are several varieties and scenarios of this type of mistake. One being when we make an incorrect assumption, such as providing help to another. Generally thinking that help is always welcome but finding out later that the recipient did not want the help at that moment. Another example is when there is a lack of content knowledge. For instance, if a science educator gives students several unidentified clear liquids to put out a small fire and the student tries to extinguish a fire with isopropyl alcohol, they quickly learn that just because alcohol is a liquid, it won’t put out the flame. It is a highly flammable substance and may cause the fire to grow. A period of “aha” arrives, and a student might realize afterward that they were missing information needed but also learned or gained new knowledge.

One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.” – Alexander Fleming

The Sloppy Mistakes

When we’re working on a task we’ve already mastered, and due to carelessness, rushing, or being in a distracted state of mind, we make what’s known as sloppy mistakes. We all understand the importance of teaching healthy study and work habits. But if we’ve learned anything during this past year, we know life can suddenly change overnight. When thinking of this mistake with COVID-19 in mind, one might conclude that distracted states of mind are all too common among students and teachers who found themselves dealing not only with health concerns but also with juggling new learning environments and programs. Taking the time to talk about this type of mistake and the importance of mindset might very well put anxiety or frustrations at ease.

The High-stakes Mistakes

A high-stakes mistake can shape one’s future either positively or negatively for the long term. In one situation, a high-stakes mistake can cause harm, so we do our best and try to avoid this mistake. One example would be if a student doesn’t follow the proper science safety rules and procedures during a lab with an open flame, the student could be seriously injured. Another high-stakes situation is when there is much to gain at the outcome of the event. A tremendous amount of hard work and emotions are wrapped up in the goal, whether it be a national championship playoff, job interview, or college application. 

USING MISTAKES TO GROW TOGETHER

We know that teachers must make many key decisions throughout their day and these decisions affect students. Students also make many decisions, whether in taking a test, communicating with friends, or even learning a new lesson remotely. We are all human and that means that we will all continue to make mistakes, but by understanding each of the four types of mistakes discussed, then teachers and students can have opportunities to learn from each other, recognize key scenarios when help might be needed, and ensure that mistakes aren’t a bad thing. The most important takeaway is that if we view our mistakes in a more positive mindset, choose to reflect upon their outcomes, and then learn from the lessons they provide, we will continue to grow as individuals. And by sharing our mistakes and lessons learned, we can help to enrich the lives of others, too.

A life spent making mistakes is not only most honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” – George Bernard Shaw

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This post is written as a reflection of this article about how some mistakes can be generative for teachers and students, and this article about the four types of mistakes, but with focus from within a science classroom during the pandemic.