Mistakes Are Not the End

"...fail as fast as you can." -Whurley

“…fail as fast as you can.” -Whurley

Among the hottest trends in education right now is this idea of teaching students to  embrace mistakes. For decades, researchers have known the value that can be gleaned from errors and missteps. Today, scientists can even watch as the brain learns through trial and error. However, until very recently, education had few practitioners who actively applied the researchers’ conclusions. The numbers are still relatively small, but they do appear to be growing. The basic thrust of the idea is that we learn from our mistakes, and we shouldn’t be so mistake phobic when it comes to our students’ work. This is admirable, but there are some who justifiably worry we might be creating a culture that over-glorifies mistakes at the expense of good work. The difference, I believe, is where we place mistakes in the learning process. A typical classroom process might look like this:

  1. Teacher presents lesson.
  2. Students complete assignment.
  3. Teacher grades assignments and returns them to students.
  4. Teacher and students move on to the next lesson.

In this scenario, the grade is the ultimate conclusion to the teaching and learning process. Students get their one shot to impress with their levels of mastery. Mistakes come at the price of a reduced grade. This, of course, can have negative consequences, such as failing courses, being held out of extra-curricular activities, having the X-box taken away at home, etc. Little wonder that students therefore dread mistakes and the resulting red ink.

Some schools are implementing changes to this decades old practice. Mistakes are not seen as the end of the process. Rather, they are seen as steps along the path to mastery. The process might look like this:

  1. Teacher presents lesson.
  2. Students complete assignment.
  3. Teacher grades assignments and returns them to students.
  4. Students examine and reflect on errors.
  5. Teacher works with students to correct errors.
  6. Students re-attempt the assignment.
  7. Teacher re-assess student work.
  8. Process is repeated until mastery is achieved.

Mistakes gain importance because they provide insights into students’ learning and mastery levels, and they are stripped of the negative consequences of traditional assessment. This is more in line with the way research confirms that we naturally learn. It also reflects more accurately the way that most important innovations, inventions, and creative ideas come to be.

Image source: http://blog.inventright.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Chaotic-Moon-Labs.jpg

Image source: http://blog.inventright.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Chaotic-Moon-Labs.jpg

This weekend, Seguin ISD held our 11th annual Technology Fair. One highlight was a presentation by William Hurley (@whurley). Whurley is an energetic bundle of creative energy. He shared several projects undertaken by his successful Austin company, Chaotic Moon Studios. A recurring theme of the presentation was the value of mistakes as part of learning and innovating. He encouraged students to “fail as fast as you can.” Whurley shared through story after story how Chaotic Moon embraces and expects mistakes along the path to innovation and invention. A video of a smart shopping cart being developed by the company showed numerous missteps, such as the cart not understanding commands or almost knocking over a display of wine bottles. It also showed how truly creative ideas have to master the art of reflecting on mistakes and trying new approaches until success is achieved.

Now more than ever, in an educational environment of high-stakes assessments, no-pass-no-play policies, and stressful hyper-importance placed upon grades and class standing, ed tech can lead the way to a new appreciation for mistakes. Students who are given the opportunity to create, to code, to tinker, and to invent with technologies have unique opportunities to engage in productive mistake-making. The processes involved in writing a program, building a robot, or creating a 3D object with software and a printer are inherently mistake-laden. All one has to do is note the frequency of updates to a computer’s operating system or the apps on a smartphone to see how developers respond to and learn from mistakes. When we give our students hands-on, sometimes messy opportunities to use technology in these kinds of ways, we are preparing them for something bigger and more important (no matter what a state agency might believe) than being able to pass a test. We are equipping them to be the minds of tomorrow who will stare down society’s problems and create solutions that obliterate them. So, in the spirit of Whurley, let’s get our kids out there making mistakes as often and fast as we can.


  1. Very insightful comments. I personally don’t like to encourage kids to “fail” since seeing so many peers flunk out of college for lack of effort. The words success, hard work, perseverance, have to be part of the equation especially when talking with young people who take things so literally in many cases. Thomas Edison is always a great example of that. Entrepreneurship and business acumen are a few more skills students are still not being exposed much to, combined with engineering and computer science smarts, the future generations can be extremely powerful.

    • Thanks for the comment, Terry. Failure is not a goal, but it is a necessary step that even great minds like Edison experienced on the road to success. Entrepreneurship is another great example–the process of building a successful business is often full of ups and downs. How we (and our kids) respond to the downs goes a long way to determining how likely we are to experience the ups.

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