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Mistakes are Powerful Learning Tools

P8050102Recently, I made a mistake that, thankfully, caused only minor damage. I was pulling into my driveway, and my foot slipped off the brake pedal and became momentarily entangled in my sandal; I wound up bumping the nose of my car into my front porch and making a small dent in the wall!

It was a split-second event, one of those common sorts of accidents which occur when we’re doing something routine and operating on mental auto-pilot. That momentary shock and confusion and panic really rattled me!

After I calmed down, I looked online and, sure enough, there are many articles cautioning people to wear proper footwear when driving. I now have a pair of slip-on sneakers in my car for those flip-flop or high-heel-wearing occasions.

I’ve been telling my cautionary tale to every one of my students, because besides conveying a safety message, I also want to make sure and model for all of my students the importance of viewing mistakes as learning tools.

This is true in all of life, including academics.

In our culture we tend to equate “mistakes” with “failure,” and we worry that failure indicates some character flaw or that the experience of failure will damage self- esteem. We try to shield our kids from failure, and educators work hard to make learning easy, fun, stress-free and error-free (or at least error-minimized). When students struggle, we take this as a signal that something is wrong.

Meanwhile, in cultures renowned for high academic achievement, parents and educators are not alarmed to see kids busting their brains on tough problems and making lots of mistakes, and the kids seem to take errors in stride.

It turns out that the brain learns better when it has to “fight for” knowledge. Challenging material, frustrating and confusing material, and even, believe it or not, smudged, hard-to-read material, actually wind up being learned more thoroughly and remembered more permanently. And every mistake, be it on the road, or on the SAT, or in math class, is a golden opportunity for deep understanding to happen, so long as we view mistakes in that light and not as badges of shame or symptoms of some malady. The shock of realizing a mistake plus the effort to understand and fix it, make the content memorable.

One of the best ways we can help our students achieve in this coming school year and beyond, is to teach them that learning is hard work, and that mistakes and failure are normal, beneficial parts of the process.

And…let’s please remind them to not drive in their flip-flops!

[photo of forest in Juneau, Alaska]

Mistakes are Powerful Learning Tools

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2013). Mistakes are Powerful Learning Tools. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Sep 2013
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