Mistakes Are What Make Growth Possible

My son decided he wanted to make something similar to an erector set. We basically put together PVC pipe, bricks, and anything else we could find to get a metal ball to make it into a bucket. On the surface level this looks easy. However, if the pipes wiggle the wrong way, it totally fails.

We tried.

We tried again.

We tried ten more times.

Then another ten times.

We tried until he was nearly in tears as the ball got stuck and any sense of progress we had made seemed to regress. After going back inside and getting a drink of water, we tried ten more times. Then another ten times.

On the seventy-seventh try, it worked. Here’s the video:

So, it has me thinking about perseverance and the concept of “grit.” The general narrative is that we should push kids to keep trying and that eventually they develop “grit” through the sheer grind of trying and trying and trying. Push for higher standards and tell kids to keep working until they get it. It will be boring and hard and painful, but ultimately it will be worth it. The grit narrative tells students that “failure is not an option.”

However, I don’t think that’s how perseverance works. I don’t think it comes from a dreary place of high-stakes accountability. I think it happens in creative moments like this afternoon. It starts with choice and agency. Kids want to create something because the task is deeply meaningful to them. Next, they move incrementally with the absolute permission to make mistakes. There are no grades, no drills, no boring moments of “just get this done or else.”

It’s counterintuitive but choice, agency, and fun are all critical elements for helping students develop perseverance. It’s part of what I love about the design thinking cycle. Students begin with engagement and desire and move into inquiry and ideation. Teachers allow for extended time for prototyping, testing and revising — without grading anything.

Here, mistakes are expected. In fact, they are a critical part of what makes design projects work. Kids walk into it knowing that they won’t get it right on the first time. That would actually be boring; like jumping to the top level on the first turn of a video game. When kids do design projects, they know that each mistake is a chance to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.

It has me thinking about the concept of a growth mindset. When students have the permission to make mistakes, they begin to define success as growth and learning. They recognize that failure isn’t really failure at all. Ultimately, they become less risk-averse. They try new things . . . even if it means trying for 77 times before finding success.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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  1. […] Highlight and Fix: Helping Students Embrace Revision. Also check out this post on why mistakes make growth possible. […]

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