It’s a well-known fact that many authentic Persian carpets have deliberate mistakes woven into them because of the Islamic belief that only Allah is perfect, and that a perfect carpet would be an insult to Him.  The belief makes it clear that humans are innately imperfect.  Unfortunately, in our American schools, teachers often expect students to be perfect; that is, to always have the right answer. Likewise, standardized tests reward only right answers.

But the realities are that being wrong often has its advantages in learning.  Studies have actually shown that errorful learning which is followed by corrective feedback is beneficial to learning. What is particularly interesting is that the more the student thinks their error is correct, the more benefit the student gains from being guided toward the correct answer.

American schools differ from those in other higher-performing countries in their attitude toward making mistakes.  For example, studies suggest that in math class, American teachers tend to focus on correct procedures, ignore mistakes, and praise students only for getting the right answer.  In Japan (which has higher performing schools in math), however, teachers generally avoid praising students, ask students to solve problems on their own, and then lead students in discussions of common errors as together they explore a variety of pathways toward both correct and incorrect solutions.

Teachers should strive to create classroom climates where mistakes are regarded as wonderful opportunities to learn.  If  students are constantly worried that the answer they are about to give might be wrong, their stress levels are likely to increase, which makes it even more difficult for them to think through the problem or question at hand.

Instead, when a student gives a wrong answer, the teacher should say something like:  ”That’s interesting.  That’s not what I got, but I’d like to hear your reasoning for getting that answer.”  The exploration of why an answer is wrong can often lead to fruitful discussions that both clarify right answers, and also lead to thinking about the skill or topic in a whole new way.  After all, it was Thomas Edison who said about his search for the electric light bulb:  ”I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

For more insights into the mysteries and magic of learning, get my new book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.

This post was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education -

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2 Responses
  1. I can’t help wondering how I taught reading so successfully to young kids in school without phonics. Maybe it was because I gave them things to look at while they were singing songs, reciting poems, or playing word games. Without ever telling them that the way words are spelled has very little to do with their pronunciation or meaning. And as the mother of four children while I was a teacher I realized that young children identify their favorite foods, toys, friends, clothing and books by the way they looked, not how they were spelled. All the anciennt letters that fill up written words today are just pictures that stand for words to all us readers.

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