Are mistakes always wrong?

by | Mar 7, 2021 | Blogs

Alexander is just 3 years old and playing football on the lawn with his Daddy. This involves Daddy kicking the ball towards Alexander, who then collects it and tries to kick it back. Unfortunately, some of Daddy’s kicks are not well aimed, which results in the following from Alexander. “Daddy, don’t kick it where I’m not are”. After the game, Alexander complains to his Mummy that “Daddy kicked it where I wasn’t was.”

toddler kicking ball

Probably the first reaction to this will be to suggest that Alexander has made mistakes in his language, and of course that is true. But it is only necessary to look at both his sentences together to realize that there is a fundamental language structure being used, and used consistently, even when the verb tense is changed.

Alexander’s mistakes here are not simply random errors – they are in line with his current theories about how English is structured. Being in line with a child’s current theories about how English works is, as we shall see, a very common explanation of what, to people lacking professional knowledge, are usually classed as ‘mistakes’.

But to those WITH professional knowledge (such as teachers), such mistakes tell us a great deal about a child’s current thinking about aspects of language. And knowing about this thinking is essential if we are to plan to engage the child in meaningful learning activities.

Of course, learning from their own mistakes and errors is also an important part of children’s development. Most adults understand this concept. Yet, we often fail to teach our children that there is a positive side to getting things wrong. Many children grow up in a society that pressurizes them to be perfect – to get the highest test and examination scores, to get into the best universities. Parents will often correct or complete their children’s homework to give the very best impression to their teachers of that child’s abilities. They will even sometimes argue with teachers who try to point out a child’s area of weakness that needs improvement.

Such a focus on perfection can affect children’s learning. Research tells us that learning from mistakes is part of healthy child development.

Learning from mistakes enhances learning

In most fields of human achievement, from sport to intellectual development. learning is enriched through errors.  Learning from mistakes is part of how we challenge ourselves to learn to do things differently. It motivates us to try new, innovative approaches to problem-solving. Throughout a lifetime, learning from mistakes helps develop wisdom and good judgment. Research has shown that making mistakes enhances rather than detracts from learning.


Many teachers strive for “errorless learning”, arguing that if allowed to make uncorrected mistakes children may learn the incorrect material rather than the correct. Research (Kornell, et al, 2009) suggests that this worry is misplaced. In fact, they found, learning becomes better if conditions are arranged so that learners make errors. It seems that people remember things better, and for longer, if they are given very challenging tests on the material – tests on which they are bound to make mistakes. In a series of experiments, the researchers showed that if learners made an unsuccessful attempt to remember some information before being given the answer, they remembered that information better than when they were simply asked to study the information. Trying and failing to remember an answer seemed actually to be helpful to learning.


Richland et al, (2009) asked learners to read some complex material but asked them beforehand some questions about the material which they would probably not be able to answer correctly in advance of reading. They found a quite substantial learning advantage when the learners were asked to first guess the answers – almost inevitably making mistakes.

Learning from mistakes improves effort and motivation

The potential effects of making mistakes of learners’ effort and motivation have been demonstrated by the work of Carol Dweck on what she terms ‘growth mindset’.

growth mindset

Dweck was interested in learners’ attitudes to failure and noticed that while some youngsters seemed devastated by even the smallest setbacks, other quickly rebounded and tried again. She coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. When people believe that they can become cleverer, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore, they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.


In her 2006 book, Dweck reports on her research with 11-year-olds in New York City.  In her studies, some groups were praised for their intelligence while other groups were praised for their effort. When these children were challenged with an extremely difficult test (designed for children much older), a surprising result occurred.  Those who had been praised for their effort worked very hard, even though they made a lot of mistakes.  Those praised for being clever became discouraged and saw their mistakes as a sign of failure. Intelligence levels (measured by IQ tests) for the children praised for their effort increased by 30% while in those praised for their intelligence levels dropped by 20% (Dweck, 2006). The conclusion was that for some learners, probably unused to making many mistakes, a succession of errors can be off-putting and demotivating. For others, mistakes are a spur to trying harder, and thereby achieving more.

The power of mistakes

 “I have never felt I was wasting time. Science is a process of trial and error. The only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have no ideas.”

Albert Einstein

“While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.” 

Henry C. Link

“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.”

George Bernard Shaw

Further reading

Adoniou, M. (2014) Want to improve your kids’ writing? Let them draw. The Conversation, April 2, 2014,

Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential. New York, NY: Ballantine Books. For some background, see

Kornell, N., Jensen Hays, M. & Bjork, R. (2009) Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Subsequent Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35 (4), pp. 989-998,

Richland, L., Kornell, N. & Kao, L. (2009) The Pretesting Effect: Do Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Learning?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15 (3), 243-257,

Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training – VSGDET (2019) Literacy Teaching Toolkit for early childhood.




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