The Art of the Mistake

We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.  They’ve been big and they’ve been small.  Usually, in hindsight they’re really no big deal at all.  Sometimes when they happen, however, they have such an impact that they’ll never be forgotten.  We’ve all made our share of mistakes.  

Part of me wants to stop there…we’ve all made our share of mistakes.  

However, mistakes can’t just stop with the mere acknowledgement that they’ve been made.  The beautiful part of mistakes is what comes after: learning, empathy, growth.  As educators we see our fair share of mistakes made on a regular basis.  I’ve grown fond of telling students that we expect them to make mistakes and that it’s their job (with our help) to learn from them, that’s why they’re in school.

Sometimes the mistakes our students make are minor, like a computational error on a math problem, other times they’re much bigger.  However, at the end of the day the ultimate goal is still the same; they should be learning from their mistakes.  This, the learning, is the crucial part of the puzzle.  How do we ensure that the learning they take away from their mistakes is the ‘right’ learning and how do we make sure that they’ve actually learned that lesson?

In truth, the answer to that question is simply, ‘we can’t.’  For the same reason that we are prone to making mistakes, we can’t guarantee anything else in the equation – we’re all human.  This, the fact that we’re all human, is something that I believe we forget all too often when dealing with other people’s mistakes.  It’s very easy to climb up into our ivory towers and pass judgement upon other people’s mistakes, even easier when those people are teenagers who make lots of mistakes!  However, if the true goal is to help someone learn from their mistake then we have to step back and remember – we’re all human.

Now, to be sure, just because we’re all human doesn’t mean that mistakes should be allowed to go unaddressed.  Actually, it’s just the opposite, mistakes need to be identified and learning should take place.  It’s this process of identifying mistakes, acknowledging them, and going through the process of learning that is at the heart of our job.  At the end of the day, how we treat mistakes made by our students is the legacy that we’ll leave as educators.  

Herein lies, perhaps, the biggest challenge we face each and every day.  How do we deal with mistakes made by our students?  We can be too relaxed, we can be too strict, or we can be somewhere in between.  It’s a Goldilocks paradox of sorts, we’re looking for that sweet spot right in the middle, that ‘just right’ territory.  There is no right answer here, and sometimes we’re going to make our own mistakes when dealing with other people’s mistakes.  However, if we can step back and acknowledge the fact that we all make mistakes and that they are a normal part of life, then just maybe we can get a little closer to that ‘just right’ place where we can all learn from our mistakes.  

We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.  They’ve been big and they’ve been small.  Usually, in hindsight they’re really no big deal at all.  Sometimes when they happen, however, they have such an impact that they’ll never be forgotten.  We’ve all made our share of mistakes.  

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – John Powell

“Many times what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth.” – Richelle E. Goodrich

“You will only fail to learn if you do not learn from failing.” – Stella Adler

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” – Neil Gaiman

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde

“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.” – Winston Churchill

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates



The Rewards of Risk

Last week I wrote about granting yourself permission to stop, in order to maintain balance in your life as you work towards our students’ success.  I was inspired by a few conversations with teachers this week and once again want to plead with you to grant yourselves permission, this time for something else.  We strive to practice what we preach with our students but many times in our efforts to always be our best for our kids we ask them to do something that we omit from our regular practice.  

This year as we coached our students through the SMART Goal process in the Middle School we asked them to set a risk-taking goal.  We want to see all of our students stepping out of their comfort zones to try new things, meet new people, and expand their horizons.  It is an essential part of learning and growing, something that applies to not only students but everyone.  As educators we often learn new strategies, read great articles, share ideas, and evolve our skill set.  However, something that is hard for everyone to do, especially teachers with an adolescent audience, is to take risks.

I was speaking with a teacher recently who told me about a lesson she had planned and executed that included a few new tools and ideas, it sounded fantastic.  There was differentiation, wonderful use of technology, group work, and an opportunity for reflection.  As the teacher explained, this lesson also had one more element, ”it was a disaster!”  The feeling of excitement about having a great lesson planned was stolen away from her because the lesson didn’t go as she had envisioned.  The tech didn’t work correctly when the kids accessed it and the downward spiral that followed totally took the wind out of her sails. She had taken a risk and tried some new things with this lesson but didn’t get the result she was hoping to achieve.  Her feeling of despair was completely reasonable, after all the lesson (in her mind) was a disaster and she could’ve done better.

My first reaction to this story, however, was completely the opposite of how this teacher was feeling, I was excited!  Taking risks as a teacher is hard to do.  To put ourselves in front of our students and risk something going wrong is a scary feeling, sometimes difficult to overcome.  Yet it is those risks, those attempts at something new, that really pushes our educational practice forward.  We could lean back and teach the same lesson year after year because we know it “works”, but what if we could do something better?

Just as it is important to achieve balance by granting ourselves permission to stop, it is also important to open ourselves to the idea of taking risks by granting ourselves permission to fail.  Having a growth mindset and “failing forward” is something we want our kids to do, so why shouldn’t we be doing it too?

Have a look at your next unit(s) and think about some lessons that could be enhanced by a little risk-taking.  To be sure, just as with our kids, we don’t need to be taking risks every single day or every lesson.  Perhaps a fair goal would be to take a risk and try something new every unit or maybe every couple weeks.  Some will be hits and others will be disasters but the end result will be long term gains for your students!