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The person who never makes mistakes

2013-02-03-Mistakes-Word-CloudTeaching a Year 5 class recently, I encountered something I come across from time to time but, on this occasion, it seemed immovable, entrenched, stuck…

Quite simply, a child was making mistakes in her Maths work and had decided she couldn’t continue. In appearance, she was very well turned out, polite and articulate but, inside, she had disintegrated.

I had to spend some considerable time convincing her that a) mistakes were a normal part of human experience and that b) some of our best learning comes as a result of our mistakes. And I recounted Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted maxim:

The person who never makes mistakes never makes anything.

As well as quoting Albert, I often use Thomas Edison as an example. Famously, in attempting to construct a lightbulb that would stay on without burning out prematurely, he made a thousand that didn’t. Apparently, when asked about his perseverence with the light bulb project and his many failures, he responded pithily,

I found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb.

Edison’s legendary tenacity is an inspiration and many children know his story – but to apply his lessons in their own lives requires more than the ability to retell a story or quote a phrase. Children need tenacity to be modelled and celebrated. They need to see mistakes as a living reality for their role models, teachers and heroes. They need to be taught how to recognise and experience the formidable learning acquired through making mistakes. This comes with compassionate teaching and mentoring, not through red crosses and repeat exercises.

Louis Pasteur, another iconic figure in the world of Science, recognised the value of mistakes:

Let  me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my  tenacity.

As an educator, I try to practise what I preach: I try to admit my mistakes, correct them and show what I have learned as a result. I believe that that philosophy makes us more credible as ones to learn from.

So, be tenacious and let’s teach tenacity, for it is the most certain source of power for learning and progress.