Making a mistake hurts. It can carry with it embarrassment, even shame, since starting very early in school—and perhaps even earlier than that—most of us have been socialized to associate failure with purely negative outcomes (think bad grades, not being picked for the team, getting turned down for a date, etc.). It’s possible that we can fear failure so much that we will develop a cognitive bias (i.e., confirmation bias) that causes us to filter out negative information (anything that might suggest we did something other than completely nail it) and look only for information (often in the form of praise) that confirms our perfection.
It’s possible that we can fear failure so much that we will develop a cognitive bias (i.e., confirmation bias) that causes us to filter out negative information (anything that might suggest we did something other than completely nail it) and look only for information (often in the form of praise) that confirms our perfection.
A Growing Brain vs. a Static Brain
A body of research that began in 2011 suggests that this aversion to mistakes can be a cause of poor learning habits. The research suggested that those of us who have a “growth mindset”—believing that intelligence is malleable—pay more attention to mistakes and treat them as a wake-up call, a teachable moment. By contrast, those who adopt a “fixed mindset,” believing intelligence is static, shut down their brain in response to negative feedback, and thereby miss one of the key opportunities to learn.
Since then, a MRI study at the University of Southern California, compared “avoidance learning” (where mistakes are treated negatively) and “reward-based learning” (where mistakes are treated as opportunities) found that “having the opportunity to learn from failure” and consider options can turn failure into a positive experience that satisfies reward centers in the brain.
Following on that, in a study published in Developmental Cognitive Science early this year, Michigan State researchers reported that in a comparison of a group of children assessed for whether they had a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, children with a growth mindset “were significantly more likely to have [a] larger brain response after making a mistake,” indicating that the child is giving attention to what went wrong. In addition, “they were more likely to improve their performance…after making a mistake.” Lead author Hans Schroder encourages parents and teachers not to “shy away from addressing a child’s mistakes,” instead encouraging them to be curious about what went wrong.
Mindful Methods for Working with Mistakes
This way of thinking has inspired educator Richard Curwin to develop methods to “teach with mistakes,” including not marking errors on tests and papers without explaining why they are wrong, always giving students chances to re-do their work, and letting students “brag about their biggest mistakes and what they learned from them.”
In a similar vein, in her book Mindfulness for Teachers, mindfulness in education pioneer Patricia Jennings, encourages teachers to use mindfulness techniques and exercises to become aware of their emotional reactions to challenging situations, so over time they can learn to respond instead of simply automatically reacting. In so doing, they will see more options in each situation and learn as they go. This respond-not-react phenomenon has sometimes been called “left-shift” by neuroscientists, indicating that the brain shifts in the direction not of aversion to new information but rather acceptance, as demonstrated in one of the early studies of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.