The Perks of Mistakes

I want to tell you about a boy that we call Greg. If you’re a teacher, you’ve likely had a Greg in your class before. He’s the one that fascinates you because he thinks so deeply, is so curious, and seems to already know everything you’re trying to “teach” him. He’s also the one that makes you worry when he asks a question because you may not know the answer. Greg is one of the students that makes it so important to keep learning, and he even helps you learn because those questions you can’t answer cause you to do some research.

But there is another tendency we often see in children like Greg. He was so used to always being right that it made him very uncomfortable to be wrong, or to be put in a situation where he could grow because he hadn’t learned the concept yet. Greg began the year with this frame of mind. If he made what he considered a mistake, he would make up an excuse. For instance, when he did not partition a bar into five equal pieces correctly, he said it was because of his lack of artistic skills, but definitely not because he did not know how. He saw mistakes as something to avoid at all costs and would find any possible excuse so as to not seem like he was ignorant of anything.

The problem this posed as we were working with him was we hoped he would take what happened in his “mistakes,” learn from them, and try again with better accuracy. But what happened is Greg wanted to erase his mistakes and pretend they didn’t happen at all. It became a conversation Greg and I had regularly. Slowly, he began to cherish his mistakes.

The first thing I noticed was that he actually didn’t want to erase what he used to call “mistakes.” Instead, he said he wanted to leave the lines he had drawn that didn’t work “to show his progress” (emphasis mine). I was elated that he used this phrase in place of his old word, “mistake.”

Just last week I heard him make a comment that showed me just how far he has come in the way he thinks. A coworker was having a discussion with him and stated, “you can learn just by thinking sometimes, can’t you!” To this Greg responded, “you can also learn from mistakes!”

A child went from making excuses to justify “mistakes,” to valuing these “mistakes” as a way to make progress. I cannot wait to see what he achieves in his lifetime. I want to learn from Greg and take this way of thinking as seriously as he has.  Tell me about some “mistakes” that have proven to be progress for you in the comments below.

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