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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘a Mistake is a Door to Discovery’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 27, 2016 22 min read
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(This is the final post in a five-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here,Part Two here, Part Three here and Part Four here.)

The new question-of-the-week (and the first one in this column’s sixth year!) is:

There’s a lot of talk about how we should “celebrate” and “encourage” mistakes and failures. How can teachers do that in the most effective way?

Part One in this series featured guest responses from experienced educators Doug Lemov, Danny Woo, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Bena Kallick, Allison Zmuda, Jen Schwanke and Mike Janatovich.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Doug, Danny and Kathleen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two included answers from Warren Schnack, Jenny Edwards, Michael Thornton, Annie Ward, and Cathy L. Seeley.

Amber Chandler, Barry Saide, John Spencer, Riina Hirsch, Nadja Reilly, Laura Taddei and Howard Pitler were contributors to Part Three.

In Part Four, Margaret Searle, Diana Laufenberg, Jessica Lahey, Jonathan Cassie, Andrew Miller, Allen Mendler, and Mark Katz shared their ideas on the topic.

In this last post of the series, Bryan Harris, Allison Rodman, Dawn Mitchell, Josh Patterson, Erik M. Francis, Otis Kriegel, Barbara Blackburn, and many readers, contribute their thoughts.

Response From Bryan Harris

Bryan Harris serves as the Director of Professional Development and Public Relations for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. In 2013, he earned a doctorate (EdD) from Bethel University in Minnesota after studying factors impacting new teacher retention. He also holds a certification in brain-based learning from Jensen Learning Corporation. Each year, he speaks to thousands of educators all over the country on the topics of student engagement, motivation, classroom management, and brain-based learning. He is author or coauthor of several books including the popular 2010 book Battling Boredom. He can be reached at www.bryan-harris.com:

This topic - how, when, and why - we deal with mistakes and failure during learning is a hot topic and worthy of thoughtful consideration by educators. There is a lot of discussion about how challenges help to build “grit” in students and the internet is chock-full of examples of famous people like Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, and Michael Jordan who persevered through difficult times only to become stronger, smarter, or more capable.

To tackle this question, let’s break down some key ideas a little bit more.

First, we’ll start with the assumption that mistakes are a part of learning. Mistakes are normal and to be expected. Some would even say that mistakes are beneficial. We’ll add on to that the desire for our kids to be bold and not be afraid to make mistakes during the learning process. But, are those mistakes praiseworthy and should they be the subject of celebrations? What should we be encouraging and how can we get kids to embrace and learn from their mistakes? Keep reading, we’ll tackle that question in just a moment.

Second, let’s not confuse motivating someone with equipping someone. That’s such and important point, I need to say it again! There is a significant difference between motivating someone and equipping them. Motivation almost always fades. Equipping almost always perseveres. Unsure about this? Think of the last diet you attempted or the last gym you signed up for. Our goal as educators is to equip our students with the necessary skills, attitudes, knowledge, and mindsets to be successful in a variety of circumstances. Motivation may be a part of that process, but the ultimate goal is to engage in practices which prepare students to be successful once they leave our classrooms.

To answer the question more directly - should we be celebrating or encouraging mistakes - the simple and most direct answer is yes. But, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Like almost everything we do in the classroom, the success or failure of an approach are in the details. How should we do it is the big question.

To answer this question, there are a couple of things to remember.

1. Failure and mistake-making is not fun. No one likes to make mistakes. Very few of us wake up in the morning thinking, “I wonder what mistakes I can make today?” or “I bet it’ll be a great day if I can make a ton of mistakes. And it will be even better if lots of people see my mistakes!” You can say this is a result of our culture, parenting techniques, or the structure of society. It really doesn’t matter. The fact is that most of us strive for competence and success in the shortest time possible.

2. As teachers we need to carefully examine the kind of feedback we provide to students. We may tell students that mistakes are OK and that failure is merely an opportunity to learn, but are we behaving like we actually believe it? The big picture here is that we want to avoid hypocrisy. If we say that failure can be a good thing and that mistakes are normal, we’d better teach/talk/praise in a way that aligns with that belief. Consider this: many teachers proclaim that that errors are welcome and that mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. However, the grading system, the kinds of feedback and praise that flow in the classroom, and the student behaviors that get the most attention primarily focus on first-time mastery of skills, content, and behavior. Let’s not fool ourselves, kids will see this double standard and they’ll believe actions over words.

So, this all leads to the question, how should we encourage and celebrate mistakes? Here are some suggestions to help normalize error.

1. Modeling - An effective model and example is perhaps the most important thing you can do for your students. Be vulnerable and tell students about your own successes and challenges. Let them know that you were not born a master at your content. Tell them about your struggles and your successes and what you’ve learned about yourself along the way. One caution here: be judicious in the use of examples of famous people who have overcome adversity. While stories about people like Bill Gates or Milton Hershey are interesting, it can be a struggle for some students to identify with them. You might hear some students object with statements like, “Yeah, but those are famous people. They don’t come from our neighborhood.” Use those kinds of stories to open to the door and begin the discussion but follow up with examples of past students who have experienced success.

2. Redefine success - In too many schools, success is defined solely in terms of test scores, grades, college entrance scores, and other quantifiable measures. While those things will likely always be a part of school, they don’t have to be the most important thing. Offer mulligans (do-overs) and the chance to correct errors on assignments and tests. If we expect learning to be non-stop and dynamic, let’s not treat like grades as static, permanent marks of learning.

3. Teach about the brain - One of the amazing things we’ve learned about the brain in the past two decades is the extent of its malleability. The brain is an ever-changing, constantly adapting, continuously learning organ that is far more capable of change than most people realize. Use analogies like sports and non-academic skills (like learning to cook) to illustrate how perseverance, practice, and effort are necessary to master anything. A wonderful student-friendly resource to teach students about the brain is Eric Chudler’s website Neuroscience for Kids.

4. Institute Struggle Time - Help students to understand that learning anything involves periods of uncertainty. Times of uncertainty are not comfortable and most of us strive to avoid feelings of ambiguity and doubt. As a result, many of us actively avoid struggling through uncomfortable situations. But without a certain amount of struggle, students will likely lack the depth and connection to the content that is necessary for mastery. Without struggle, students will certainly lack the ability to develop perseverance and resilience.

Struggle Time is a term used by many teachers to describe the brief, focused time when students will be asked to think about, wrestle with, and deal with problems or scenarios without immediate assistance from the teacher or another source. It’s important to note a couple of key terms here: brief, focused, without immediate assistance. Struggle Time (some teachers prefer the term Wrestle Time) is that period of time the serves the specific purpose of allowing students the chance to attempt to solve problems or come to conclusions on their own. Struggle Time always has a purpose and is limited in scope and always includes feedback and opportunities for students to debrief what they’ve learned. In other words, don’t keep your students in a state of upheaval for long periods of time. Let them struggle for a bit, then provide the feedback or direction needed to be successful. One final note about Struggle Time - periods focus, attention, struggle, and intense thinking quickly zap the brain’s resources. In other words, it is hard for the brain to maintain a state of struggle for long periods of time. Remember to provide periods of rest, movement, and feedback throughout the day.

5. Be careful about public displays & acknowledgements - There is no doubt that classrooms should be places where error, mistakes, and failures are commonplace and normal. However, be mindful of how the mistakes of students are made public. Protect students from possible ridicule and embarrassment by keeping private your feedback and corrections regarding their mistakes.

For more information about concepts related to grit, resilience, growth mindset, and erors in learning, I would encourage you to read the following:

  • Carol Dweck and others have written extensively about the power of a growth mindset in helping students learn from their mistakes. For our purposes here, I won’t repeat her research but if you are unfamiliar with her more recent findings, read more at this link.
  • Author Paul Tough has written extensively on this topic and wrote a wonderful piece published in The New York Times Magazine.
  • A great resource for learning about the brain is www.brainbasedlearning.net
  • Dr. Richard Curwin, co-author of Discipline with Dignity, wrote an excellent short article for Edutopia that can be found here.

Response From Allison Rodman

Allison Rodman (@thelearningloop) is the Founder of The Learning Loop LLC, an educational consulting organization that provides professional learning services to districts, schools, and educational nonprofit organizations. She has worked as a teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal, and director of teaching and learning. Allison is a board member for the Haddon Township School District in New Jersey and delegate to the Camden County Educational Services Commission. She was named an ASCD Emerging Leader in 2013:

Drop the star charts. Yes, put down the glitter, cool off the laminating machine, and chill out on the dye cuts. While it is helpful for students to see their progress over time to feel successful and be invested in the learning process, we need to place less emphasis on mastery and more on the hard work it takes to get there. The last time I checked, my Amazon Kindle did not dole out scented stickers when I re-read a page I did not understand. The Waze navigation app on my phone did not dispense extra goodies for going the wrong way and still getting to my destination. Yet, in both cases, I learned. Star charts are not the way of life - and certainly not the fuel of constant learners.

So much of our teacher preparation programs and professional development sessions focus on “getting kids to ‘got it.’” It is incredibly important to facilitate learning environments in which our students are driving towards a key set of measurable goals, but too often we focus on the destination and lose sight of the incredible learning opportunities that exist along the way. Helping students see failure as “First Attempts In Learning” is easier said than done, particularly for a generation of kids who receive trophies simply for stepping up to the plate. Here are some strategies for celebrating mistakes and fostering a culture of continuous learning in your classroom:

  • Celebrate skills such as powerful thinking and adaptive problem-solving over content mastery. Reinforce actions and behaviors that contribute to success in a variety of settings and contexts - not just with one particular concept. If you are going to give out stars, get glittery over these transferrable skills rather than “one and done” learning objectives.

  • Provide specific feedback that emphasizes growth. Move away from X’s and ü's and focus on qualitative comments that help students improve. Consider removing numerical grades from formative assessments so students digest their next steps for improvement before calculating an assignment’s impact on their report card.

  • Design pit stops that take you out of the driver’s seat. When our students get stuck, they cannot always depend on a teacher to be there for guidance. Create support stations with model work and clear criteria for success. Craft anchor charts or visual instructional plans that suggest possible next steps. Begin to see yourself as more of a travel agent and less of a tour guide.

  • Model the learning process. As teachers, we model countless skills for our students - problem-solving, text marking, question analysis - but we sometimes forget the importance of getting real about the learning process. It rarely plays out in neat, multi-step problems or clean editing steps. At its best, real learning is downright messy. We need to be transparent with students about our own learning - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

We want our students to step up to the plate, but we also want them to take swing after swing and improve their average even when faced with the most difficult pitchers. We can only do this by focusing on their technique and not the final score. So sit back, coach, and let your students play the game.

Response From Dawn Mitchell & Josh Patterson

Dawn Mitchell serves in instructional services in Spartanburg District Six and is an adjunct instructor with Furman University where she is a university supervisor, teacher mentor, and instructor for their PBL endorsement courses in Spartanburg District Six. She is also the partnership director for the Spartanburg Writing Project, affiliate of NWP and an ASCD Emerging Leader. Connect with Mitchell on Twitter @dawnjmitchell.

Josh Patterson, PhD is the principal of Oakland Elementary School in Spartanburg, S.C. He is co-chair of the project-based learning action team with TransformSC, an ASCD Emerging Leader, and president-elect of South Carolina ASCD. Connect with Patterson on Twitter @ACE_Patterson:

It is in the middle of deep summer here in the south and you can find kids everywhere in lakes and ponds, pools and rivers diving in head first without a care in the world. It wasn’t always this way. Kids didn’t instinctively know how to dive. Someone had to teach them. I remember learning how to dive with my dad. He lifted me out of the pool’s clear water and perched me on the edge of the pool and he started out just an arm’s length away.

He began by assuaging my fears. He held out his hands in a promise of support and said he would be right here when I came up. After I half dove, half jumped the first time, he praised my efforts. Then he gave me permission to fail the first time. His voice still rings in my ear, “Now, girl it’s going to take a few times before you get this. It just takes a little practice. Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Gradually throughout that afternoon he backed farther and farther away and I dove a little cleaner, a lot more confident.

Provide Permission to Fail Forward

In his recent text, Helping Children Succeed (2016), Paul Tough states, “Many of the educators I encountered who seemed best able to engender noncognitive abilities (such as grit and perseverance) in their students never said a word about these skills in the classroom” (p. 9). As educators, we must strive to create an environment of trust and high expectation. No strategy can encourage risk-taking more than a classroom characterized by a sense of urgency, purpose, and mutual respect. Our attempts to encourage students to take risks should be directly applicable to the work, provided within the context of instructional tasks. As Tough claims, “If we want to improve a child’s grit or resilience or self-control, it turns out that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment” (p. 13).

Praise Early Efforts Even If It Isn’t Perfect

Psychologist Carol Dweck, the foremost expert regarding the idea of growth mindset, reminds us to praise effort. Unlike praising students for their intelligence, "...effort or “process” praise fosters hardy motivation. It tells students what they’ve done to be successful and what they need to do to be successful again in the future” (2007). In order for educators to praise early efforts, we must commit ourselves to become keen observers of our students, watching for their use of soft skills. Seek to praise strategies, choices, struggles, and authentic improvements. Remember, praise is most effective when direct and specific, even in times of failure and mistakes.

Fail Together!

Collaboration is not filled with all “kumbaya” moments. It can be hard, misunderstood, and sometimes messy. But when collaboration is taught and appropriately structured, it can be a powerful tool to celebrate failure and mistakes. STEM/STEAM challenges are an ideal way to promote risk taking through collaboration. The chance provided through tasks to think innovatively through the design process provides students with countless opportunities to fail and apply new learning to meaningful tasks. Learning is a social phenomenon. Failing together provides the interdependent support and accountability to continue the learning. (Check out this blog post by Jackie Gerstein for more ideas)

Simply telling our children to take risks doesn’t work. Teaching our children how, providing them with opportunities to fail forward, right into our arms and then out into the world, does. As educators, we must provide our students the necessary support and structure to embrace failure and remain persistent, recognizing that the journey (not the destination) is where the real learning occurs.

Dweck, C. S. (2007, October). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34-39.

Tough, P. (2016). Helping children succeed: what works and why. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Response From Erik M. Francis

Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the author of Now THAT’S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning, published by ASCD. He is also the owner and lead professional education specialist for Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development on teaching and learning that address the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards. He also provides consultation on the development, implementation, and compliance of academic programs funded under policies and provisions the Every Students Succeeds Act:

First, we need to distinguish between mistakes and failures. Making a mistake means being unsuccessful at an attempt. Thomas Edison made 86 mistakes before he finally was able to harness the power of electricity in a light bulb. If he did not make the attempt that 87th time, then we could say he failed -- however, he only failed in his attempt to try to harness the power of electricity one last time. We fail when we give up or do not put in the effort.

From a school’s perspective, students should be provided the opportunity or even the choice to correct whatever mistakes they have made be it on a practice activity or an assessment. That is the only way they will learn from their mistakes and develop deeper understanding of what it is that they are learning and how they can use what they have learned in different contexts. Failure should only be when a student does not or even refuses to make the attempt to answer a question, address a problem, accomplish a task, or analyze a text or topic. Failure is a personal choice. Making mistakes are a way of life and a means to learn.

Response From Otis Kriegel

Otis Kriegel is the author of Starting School Right: How do I plan for a successful first week in my classroom? (ASCD). Kriegel has taught elementary and middle school students for 15 years. He has taught in dual language (Spanish/English and German/English), monolingual, and integrated coteaching classrooms. Connect with him on Twitter @mynameisotis:

Post-its, Gore-Tex, the microwave, penicillin: all were discovered through mistakes. It’s important for kids to know that learning from errors can be heroic, terrific and even life and culture changing. Sometimes even the sloppiest blunder can end up being something creative and exciting--if you’re paying attention.

A mistake is a door to discovery. What happened? Why did it happen? What can I learn from this? It is a moment to explore and to learn, either what can be done next time or if a new discovery was made that will help the entire class. Mistakes can also open up communication between student and teacher leading to teaching opportunities that will help both parties.

Correcting mistakes immediately will set up an expectation that students can try but if they don’t get it then the answer will be provided. I like to give students a few extra tools that will help them to find that answer, or a better yet, explore why this happened and what they can do next time. But sometimes their slip-up will shine light on a new way of solving a math problem, a trick to spell a word correctly or some other discovery that can be used to help others. Simply telling a student, “This is wrong. Here’s the right answer,” doesn’t help them to see the potential discovery and learning involved in making a misstep.

Many kids feel very anxious about making mistakes. To demystify the fear, I like to take a poll in class at the beginning of the year. I ask, “Who has ever made a mistake?” Most hands go up, if not all. I tell the students to look around to see that each and every one of us makes them. Then I ask, “Who has never made a mistake?” Usually, at the most, one hand is raised, and it slowly drops. I tell the class that making the error is not wrong; it’s not paying attention to why it was made and learning from it that is the true mistake and loss of opportunity. I share errors have made and those that have lead to world-changing inventions. There is usually a sigh of relief heard through the classroom and an acknowledgment that learning, as opposed to being perfect, is what is most important.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is an educational consultant and author of 13 books, including the best-sellingRigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word and her latest, Rigor for Students with Special Needs. She writes a blog and can be reached through her website:

It has to be positive, yet focused on progress in learning. For example, I need to create a culture that encourages mistakes. I talked to a math teacher who had a bulletin board of “marvelous mistakes”. When students made a mistake in their work, they posted it, and other students helped solve it. The first student then reworked the problem and posted it beside the mistake. Students learned that it was acceptable to make mistakes, and to accept help from other students. It became a regular part of the classroom.

Responses From Readers


I’m seriously having a hard time with the concept of celebrating mistakes and failures... We need to encourage our students to be open to risk-taking and to make mistakes, because “we can learn a lot from these experiences.” Encouraging your students to take a chance, and go for it, is completely different from celebrating failure. When we celebrate failure, the only thing our students will learn is that failure is acceptable, and commendable, so why try?

...We need to celebrate success, but be able and willing to heed the lessons of failure... You learn from your mistakes, you analyze your errors, you take lessons from your missteps, but you never, ever CELEBRATE failure.

Dawn Tafel Zink:

Not sure I would use the word “celebrate,” but I definitely agree with the fact mistakes need to be acknowledged as a critical part of learning and perseverance. Students need to feel they can take risks and recover from the failure of mistakes. Doesn’t mean the student is a failure.

Tom King:

Try Project-Based Learning....step back and let them fail and succeed and be proud of what they learned.

Mrs. Forsberg:

I think celebrating mistakes is as important as celebrating success if we want students to truly embrace the learning opportunities that mistakes provide.

Thanks to Bryan, Allison, Dawn, Josh, Erik, Otis, Barbara, and to many readers, for their contributions!

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