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The Rightness of Being Wrong: How Mistakes Illuminate Progress


Like most people, I grew up terrified of mistakes. After all, they typically yielded undesired results. It’s hard to forget the embarrassment that comes from answering a question wrong in front of the class and hearing the snickers from people who know better, or how mortifying it can be to bunt the ball directly into the pitcher’s hands during a game of kickball for an instant out. We are conditioned from a young age to fear being wrong, which often leads to a decrease in risk-taking as we get older. Furthermore, our anxiety about being wrong can stunt our learning, since one of the best ways to grow is by making mistakes and changing course. How can we ensure that classrooms are safe spaces where students feel confident sharing their ideas, right or wrong?

Acknowledge the existence of multiple truths to shine light on what matters.

As someone with an English teaching background, my instinct is to correct student language usage, particularly if I view it as wrong. For instance, I have not adjusted to accepting “alright” as a proper spelling option even though it is now widely accepted, and I die a little inside whenever I see it. However, I long ago stopped telling students that it was wrong. If I approach my class as a “gotcha” with multiple opportunities to correct students, they will stop paying attention to my feedback. Instead, I present the various options for spelling the word and let students decide what to do for themselves. Then, when students make significant mistakes that need to be corrected more urgently, they will be open to feedback from a teacher who picks battles wisely, and who approaches mistakes in with a “Did you know?” approach that reflects accessibility.

Share vulnerability.

I used to teach AP Language to a class composed of students in a high-achieving math program. One day, we were discussing possible answers on a multiple choice practice and I referred to the process of selecting an answer as “random.” At that point, a few of the students piped up and said, “Not random. You mean arbitrary.” In that moment, I had to admit the truth; I was not entirely confident about the difference between the two. My uncertainty did nothing to ruin my students’ estimation of me; if anything, they were happy to explain the distinction between the two words, and it gave their math-minded lens a place in the world of English class. That day, we came to a common understanding that can only be achieved through some vulnerability. Being wrong is inevitable in teaching; how we respond is key to educating our students about the value of errors. If we pretend we’re infallible, students will think that it is not okay to be human. That’s not a message any teacher wants to send.

Value human connection.

Unless we own our humanity in very obvious ways, we can never expect students to get comfortable with their own less-than-perfect academic journey. The most important aspect of creating a classroom culture of safe inquiry lies in relationships. I am prone to migraines, and a few have descended while I was teaching. Instead of trying to mask the symptoms, which include a sudden inability to speak clearly or spell words (definitely an occupational hazard for an English teacher), I tell students up-front that I will be somewhat incapacitated for the remainder of class. Each time this happens, students rush to help, even (or especially) the kids who are not always models of excellent behavior. Instead of making fun of me as I puzzle out words in front of me, they help me by reading out loud so I can process information aurally. Even in less extreme situations, my goal is to prioritize who we are as people in order to tap into who we are as learners. That way, when we do make mistakes, we already have a culture of trust and connectedness.

Seek out missteps and doubts, but look at the positive first.

Going one step beyond accidental error, it is important to purposely look for wrong turns and turn them into not just teachable moments, but also desirable steps on the path to learning. One of the most frequent statements I hear from students is, “I can’t write.” They insert disclaimers into their narrative before the teacher can critique them as a form of self-protection. In situations like this, I rely on the power of front-ending positive feedback. Finding something wonderful to say about the writing piece, no matter how flawed, can help increase confidence and normalize critical feedback so that it is less threatening. That way, mistakes become an organic part of the learning process rather than a source of fear.

When we welcome wrong turns in our classrooms and embrace the process of course-correction, students not only feel safer; they also become more resilient and reflective. I will never forget the terror of standing at the board in front of my math class, trying to work out the answer to a problem I didn’t understand and dreading the teacher’s response. If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self that mistakes are part of learning, and that internalizing the reactions of others is hinders growth. Instead, using strategies that welcome human error is a way to ensure that students experience the best possible learning opportunities, right or wrong. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS