March 23, 2020

Making Mistakes Meaningful

Each EmpowerED 3.2.1 features a brief summary of my musings about and learning from multiple disciplines as they apply to leadership in education.


What do potato chips, Post-It Notes, pacemakers, penicillin, and Silly Putty all have in common? They were all created by mistake. In each case, the inventor was attempting to create something completely different and thought they failed with the final product. As decades passed and profits made, the benefit of hindsight tells us that these so-called failures were actually triumphs. Failure is just as essential to your career, no matter what your discipline. As long as you have the right attitude and view your failures as learning experiences, you can use them to push forward and achieve success.


3 Big Ideas


    1. Mistakes are good for business. Simon Casuto offers some insight for educators. He writes failure, mistakes, mishaps all play a vital role in helping employees learn and grow. “Unfortunately, however, organizations penalize mistakes and create employees that are risk-averse and too shy or nervous to try anything new.” Don’t you see this in teachers, students, and maybe even yourself and your family? I do.
    2. Your brain actually expands on failure. An article in Scientific American finds the brain begins compiling information about an experience and actually gets bigger through the learning situation. Then, while the brain returns to close to its original size after the learning experience, it retains new neural pathways from taking in new information and compiling the key takeaways from trial and error. Making mistakes matures the brain, creating more efficient synapses and fundamentally altered neurons. Athletes know this well and are super relatable for children.
    3. Know your mistake type. Eduardo Briceno published a piece for Mindset Works that explains that not all mistakes are created equal. Stretch mistakes are those made when working to expand our current abilities. Ah-ha moment mistakes happen when we achieve what we intended, but realize it was a mistake because of some knowledge we were missing that became clear afterwards. Sloppy mistakes happen when we’re doing something we already know how to do, but we lose concentration and do it incorrectly. High-stakes mistakes are those I consider to be morally threatening and/or life threatening. These are mistakes we want to put processes in place to minimize.
      See “Why Understanding These Four Types of Mistakes Can Help Us Learn” in Mindset Works.



“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

-Oscar Wilde

“I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

-Michael Jordan

1 Question

How do students know that making mistakes is a vital part of learning? 
See “Request to Retest or Redo Work” 


About the Author: Marcia Baldanza is also the author of Professional Practices, a Just ASK Senior Consultant. and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.



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