The Necessity of Making Mistakes

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First published in E!stilo Magazine (Poland) August 2014. Republished in SRQ Magazine (Sarasota, FL) July 2015.

One of my parenting fears is my child will make a mistake, and then she will be humiliated and embarrassed. Because my child made a mistake, her future opportunities will become fewer. And, because she suffered humiliation and embarrassment, she will decide to fear failure. Reluctance and caution will replace her passion and love of learning. There’s still more to my fears: I won’t be there to prevent her from making mistakes and protect her from the consequences. And I won’t be able to prevent the emotional wounds. Of course I am projecting my own experiences, my own fixed mindset, and yet, this is silly. Mistakes are inevitable, and mistakes are an essential component of growing and learning – if treated respectfully. Great mistakes are costly, but great mistakes have led to world changing discoveries like penicillin, pacemakers, microwave ovens, post-it notes, and the potato chip! 

The question I am learning to ask myself is this: Can I, my children, and everyone else make mistakes and still be perfect? Raised in a culture of blame and shame, this is difficult. Let’s be honest: Mistakes can be costly and cost children opportunities for acceptance to universities, employment, careers, and relationships. Nevertheless, we can teach our children to learn how to benefit from making mistakes. We can learn to welcome and celebrate mistakes as valued opportunities for discovery and growth. It begins with children experiencing they are loved and accepted unconditionally. It begins with showing children that we care and that they matter. We can teach our children to reflect on what happened and to persist and try again. 

The challenge in breaking up our culture of shame and blame is enormous, especially when so much of children’s education occurs in a limiting climate of school accountability. Test taking and test scores have become the singularity of education. A test score, rather than a love for learning and a development of whole persons, is believed to validate that children have learned. We value getting the right answer through memorization, not understanding, and not getting to know how to know. 

In today’s world, the test score has political power. It is the test score, and not the developmental nature of children, that defines political rhetoric, educational policy, and economic expenditures. Teachers and school officials are accountable for producing test scores. In many nations, schools receive or lose funding based on test scores. Teachers retain or lose positions based on test scores. The rationale is, teachers are teaching, performing, if and only if children achieve high-test scores. The rationale is, the school is a high-performing school if and only if children achieve high-test scores. The social justification is, finally, if children achieve high-test scores, they will be readied for the “real” world. They will be better educated, and they will become better employees, producers, and spenders. 

How did this come about? What if the logic and premises of this kind of testing are mistaken? Throughout the world, mandated testing became accepted practice during the past forty or so years. As the Cold War Era ended, more nations competed intensely for markets, materials, and sales as a knowledge-based, global economy emerged. Business argued that educated children (as measured by testing) would become successful adults and consumers. The business of schools then became business. Schools, like corporations, developed vision statements, mission statements, high performance expectations, goals, performance standards, and performance incentives. Successful businesses stay in business only when consumers rewarded them economically through repeat purchases. Similarly, according to this argument, a school is excellent when it produces high test scores. Where parents can choose between schools, parents would reward high performance schools, as proven by test scores, by sending their children to them. Other schools, like bad businesses, would close. 

But what if a test driven approach to education is harmful to children? Most school practice is still rooted in an outdated industrial era, factory-mode model of learning. In this model one approach to education works best for every child because every child is being assembled. As practiced, production in the schoolhouse means adults control what to learn, when it is to be learned, and how to learn it. The teacher, as supervisor, oversees production. The school as factory implements quality controls – educational standards – to assure uniform production of the products (the children). In keeping with the factory model, better national and state standards of academic curriculum excellence, like factory controls, should guarantee production of better quality students. 

While a successful education for all children is essential, the politically determined test-driven approach is mistaken. Factories produce things, and factories implement standard controls to assure production results with uniform and quality products. We do want, for example, to know that chairs will hold up to the standards for carrying weight. We do want our car brakes to hold to the standards designed to ensure we will be able to stop in traffic. We want our food and water to be uniformly safe. But this logic is inappropriate and wrong for children. 

Here are the mistakes: 

  • Children are NOT things. We must not subject our children to the metrics of things. Children deserve, instead, their childhoods. Being uniform and the same defies the designs of life – growth, change, difference, uniqueness, and possibility. Children mature at different times, and they learn differently as they grow through childhood and adolescence. 
  • Children are NOT all the same. Children do not learn in the same way. Parents with more than one child know this to be true. Each child is a precious, unique being. Children possess unique capabilities and potentials for becoming who they are meant to be. To declare each child has unique capabilities is to proclaim each child has genius. As we assist or serve each child in fulfilling her or his potential, our task includes learning to overcome our own biases and prejudices and to see clearly the possibilities within each child. 
  • Test scores do NOT equate with learning. Why should we conclude learning has occurred if and only if test scores are higher? Of course children do learn without test scores and even when test scores decline. Even when scores go up, what have children really learned if they forget tomorrow what they had previously memorized? 
  • Test scores do NOT equate with education. It is assumed that if children have the same test scores, then they have learned equally. But this is hardly true. Some children are more adept at taking the current design of tests while other children are not. Some children process information with better memory retention than others. Some children contend with additional learning issues, sensory integration disorders, and a variety of attention deficits. 

Learning is far more than a test performance. For children, learning is a way of becoming, and learning and growing is supposed to be very messy. Compared with how learning really takes place, test scores are much too narrow. They are but snapshots of a lengthy process of becoming. Being a child along with the experiences of learning involve complex and related factors such as brain development, personality, temperament, emotional states, school and community environments, and racial, ethnic, and cultural matters. 

What is urgently needed is accountability for the factors involved in how children actually learn such as maturation, multiple intelligences, gender differences, unique capabilities, and strengths. Instead, the current industrial orientation denies children their childhood in school. Children require opportunities to play, explore, think, fail, discover, and create. Children must experience, in other words, joyful mistake making. Making mistakes can result with forming habits of inquiry and enable thinking, analysis, synthesis, creativity, solving problems, and understanding. We require mistakes in order to develop essential habits of persistence, resilience, and self-reliance. Making mistakes is essential if children are to develop their cognitive capabilities for executive functioning. Fully developed executive functioning will equip children are to succeed as self-reliant adults in the emerging global knowledge-based economy. 

When, then, will we let children grow and learn for their own benefits rather than for society’s? How do we end political control over our children? Perhaps it is as simple as this: Parents, take back your children! Remember that politicians work for you, and tell them enough is enough! Tell them you will no longer allow your child to be used to assess adult performance. 

Tell political leaders to implement teaching and testing suitable for the 21st century. Insist that everyday classroom experiences consist of knowledge-based, discovery learning. Hold educators accountable for differentiating instruction based on their knowledge of each child’s strengths and learning capabilities. Replace uniform testing with empowering children to develop their natural strengths, interests, curiosities, and humane passions. Let’s stop making the mistake of educating our children for a future that is not going to happen.