Learning From Mistakes

Students demonstrate a positive perspective about mistakes and unsuccessful efforts, believing that they are not failures, but a necessary and unavoidable part of learning.

  • Students understand the concept of “failing forward,” the idea that there are lessons to be learned from every experience and that this new knowledge will help them succeed in the future. Students always ask themselves: “What can I learn from this?
  • Students understand that persistence, patience, and self-discipline are often necessary to learning and they are willing to work hard and struggle when necessary to attain success.
Key Beliefs:

I will be a better student if I act on the following beliefs:

  • Learning difficult concepts and developing new skills always involved failed attempts and setbacks so the only way to succeed in life is to be persistent and patient. 
  • There is a lesson to be learned from every experience. If I learn the lesson I become smarter and more capable for future efforts. 
  • Successful people learn lessons from every failed attempt and use their unsuccessful efforts as stepping stones to new knowledge and skills. 
  • The only sure road to failure is quitting.
  • Discuss the idea of “trial and error” and of failing forward, learning from unsuccessful efforts, and how vital that is to great inventors like Thomas Edison who supposedly failed 10,000 times before he got the light bulb right, or Michael Jordan who was cut from his high school basketball team. 
  • Have your teacher assign a difficult physical or mental task (preferably both) and let you struggle. Then have the teacher show you how to do it and let you practice. 

Made by Mistake” Research Project
Students get to research inventions that came from a mistake!  The project could be done individually or in small groups, as classwork or a homework assignment. 

To start, share this list of things that were invented by mistake.

  • Silly putty Penicillin
  • Chocolate chip cookies Popsicles
  • Fireworks Velcro
  • Potato Chips Frisbee  
  • X-Ray Images Post-Its 
  • Super Glue Plastic
  • Play-Doh Corn Flakes
  • Ice Cream Cone Pacemaker

Have students pick one and research the product. Then, answer the following questions:

  1. What is the name of the invention and who made the mistake?
  2. Was there an original intention for this product before the mistake? If so, what was it?
  3. How was this product created by mistake?
  4. How did learning about this mistake make you think differently about mistakes and the challenges you face as a student?

Mistakes help us learn. However, many people hate making mistakes because they worry that making mistakes means that they aren’t smart, or that others will think they are not smart. It can be important to help students reinterpret the meaning of mistakes by explaining that you love mistakes because that’s how you learn. 

  • Ask students to write about a mistake they made this week and how it made them feel.
  • Give each student a fresh piece of paper, ask them to crumple it up, and throw it at the board with the feelings they have when they make a mistake. 
  • Ask them to retrieve the paper, un-crumple it, and color each line with different colors.
  • Ask students what they think those lines represent. Explain that the lines represent all the synaptic activity that happens when a mistake is made
  • Ask students to keep the paper and stick it into a notebook or folder to look at when they make a mistake. This physical reminder prompts students to use mistakes to strengthen their brains every time they open their notebooks.

Process and Reflection:

  1. How do you feel when you make a mistake? Why?
  2. How do you think other people see you when you make a mistake?
  3. Have you ever discovered something new from making a mistake?
  4. Have you ever felt proud of making a mistake?
  5. Has a mistake ever made you think more deeply about a problem? 
  • “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
  • “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” – Richard Branson 
  • “If at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again.” – Unknown
  • “The difference between a try and a triumph is a little umph.” – Marvin Phillips
  • “Failing is not falling, it’s refusing to get up and try again.” -Unkonwn
  • “Never say I can’t – say, I can’t yet.”  -Unknown