Creative Thinking: In Defense of Mistakes

Many of the world's greatest thinkers had numerous failures before they had successes. Teach your students to try creative thinking and to take risks, all for the sake of learning.
You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. -Wayne Gretzky
Mistakes are the portals of discovery. -James Joyce
A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing. -George Bernard Shaw

In school, the right answer is so often required that children do not learn to value the wrong one. In fact, many children have learned that it is better not to even try if you cannot be sure that you’re getting it right. And we all know that not trying is the biggest mistake of all. Many of the world’s greatest achievers first failed, often many times.

So, here are some strategies for encouraging risk-taking in your classroom.

Create a Safe Environment

  • Decorate with posters and banners with quotes about risk-taking, like the ones above.
  • Never allow children to make fun of classmates who make mistakes.
  • Ask open-ended questions with several acceptable answers.
  • Brainstorm frequently. Remember, all ideas are valid in a brainstorm.
  • When problem solving, discuss the merits of a given idea and how it has gotten you closer to a solution.
  • During a class discussion, when you are looking for a specific answer and keep getting the wrong one, respond with something like, “Not quite, but now we’re one step closer. Keep thinking!”
  • To help children discover their own error (rather than pointing it out) try asking these questions: Are you sure? Why do you think that? How did you come up with that answer?
  • Sometimes, a student gets a question wrong because he/she does not think it through before answering. In a way, this is great – the student is not afraid to take a risk. Ask this student to “think again” often, he/she will almost immediately self-correct.

Model Risk Taking

Consider How You Correct and Grade

  • It tends to be more empowering to find your own mistakes and correct them than to have someone point them out to you. Encourage kids to double check work, to self-correct. Better to teach children to seek out learning from their own mistakes rather than wait passively for someone to force them into it.
  • Rethink passing papers to classmates to correct. First, it sends the message, “I don’t trust you not to change your own answers.” And second, it opens up a struggling student to possible embarrassment or humiliation. Not a good way to encourage risk taking.
  • Offer the chance to do it again, preferably for full credit (at least in elementary school). Allow students to redo math problems, rewrite essays, even retest. The student’s job is to learn. Even if it takes a few tries, better to accomplish the goal than to leave with a failing grade and the job undone.
Got more ideas to add? Please comment.
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