Mistakes and Learning

“If you can’t make a mistake you can’t make anything”, that’s what educator Marva Collins said. She knew something about learning that too often is forgotten.

Why do schools traditionally focus so much on “how many did you get wrong? how many right?” In doing so a culture of “the right answer” is created. The emphasis is on that and not on the learning. When a young child is learning how to ride a bicycle do we emphasize how poorly they are doing as they wobble slowly down the sidewalk before falling over? “Well, that’s not exactly riding a bike, dear” is this what we say? Or do we say “Hey, that was close, you’re really doing well… this bike riding stuff is not easy.”

When anyone begins to do anything new we have to first get oriented to it, then explore it and see what it’s all about, then work at mastering the skills involved, and eventually we develop a level of proficiency- some of us a high level, others something less. We all become as good as we can be.

Learning is about the process. It is simply about just improving. Why isn’t that the culture that lives in our traditional classrooms? It surely isn’t. Not when children themselves learn to focus on right answers, and have the stress of getting “straight As”, etc.

Mistakes are natural. We should celebrate them. That “mistake” is a bad word in our school culture is a nasty reality. Why on earth set children up this way? When you are first exploring something you won’t be perfect, if ever. Your lack of complete mastery means that you’re making some mistakes – you’re not getting it all right. So? This is the way that learning something happens. Professional baseball players, the best ones, make mistakes 70% of the time (if batting “.300″). Professional actors in live theater miss lines and have to recover on the spot with their other players – they make mistakes and they are excellent at what they do.

This piece of our traditional school culture is drowning children by constantly pointing out what they can’t YET do. It’s beating up on them as they go through a perfectly natural process that they can’t avoid.

Montessori schools celebrate mistake-making as being part of the discovery of learning process. A comfort with mistakes supports creativity and innovation and we need children who have developed this from the start.

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