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Learning with the freedom to make mistakes

Katharina Pietsch, with contributions by Tyll Zybura, 3. März 2020

In higher education, mistakes are seen as something that needs to be punished. This article argues that ‘making mistakes’ is a vital part of learning and that learning needs the freedom to make mistakes to be healthy.

Opportunities for learning

I am a climber, and I recently realised that climbing is so important for my well-being because in climbing I don’t make mistakes and I don’t experience failure. Of course I fall a lot and I don’t get a lot of routes and boulder problems done that I try – but I don’t experience these falls and unfinished projects as mistakes and failures. I experience them as opportunities for learning.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t get frustrated occasionally, at least short-term, but the long-term effect of these experiences is to think about how awesome it is that there is still so much to learn and how awesome it will be once I’ll be able to do these things in the future.

Learning without the freedom to make mistakes

In education, learning without experiencing mistakes and failures is almost impossible, and it’s no wonder that our education system makes people sick. Because our education system is fundamentally based on the idea that everything that is not perfect is a mistake, and that mistakes have to be punished. Grades are the prime means to do that, but the very idea that students make mistakes and teachers call out mistakes is deeply entrenched in teaching practices in school and at university.

Our education system is fundamentally based on the idea that everything that is not perfect is a mistake, and that mistakes have to be punished.

Imagine someone who is just learning to walk – figuring out how to do that and developing the balance and technique is hard work, and usually, when you learn to walk, you just fall over a lot. There is a lot of ‘failure’ in learning to walk, because not being perfect from the start is what any kind of learning is all about. Usually, though, we wouldn’t even say a child who falls when they are learning to walk is making a mistake or is failing. We just say that they are learning to walk, and sometimes we even marvel at children’s tenacity and frustration tolerance in their self-directed learning to walk.

This radically changes once you enter the education system. Not only do we reframe learning as something that reflects a person’s deficiencies if they make mistakes, but we also tend to punish every mistake, because almost everything that learners do is being evaluated from a deficiency-oriented perspective.

Think about academic writing, which is one of the most complex cognitive activities for a human being to master. Yet, usually academic writing for students is high-stakes from the start – often, even the very first texts university students write are either graded or determine whether they pass the class. Especially when the grade counts towards their degree, there is no room to learn with the freedom to make ‘mistakes’ or to ‘fail’.

(Ironically, student writing is even more high-stakes than the writing of professional academics, because professional academics usually get the chance to revise or even withdraw their texts before they are being published.)

Learning without the freedom to make mistakes can feel like walking on a tightrope above a shark tank, and the huge amount of stress, anxiety, fear and mental health issues students experience at university tells me that this dramatic metaphor is not far off the mark.

Imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like if university facilitated the kind of learning that we experience when we learn to walk or that I experience in climbing: learning with the freedom to make ‘mistakes’ (which, then, wouldn’t really be mistakes at all). It sure would be a much healthier place than it is right now.

Learning with the freedom to make mistakes

Healthy learning needs the freedom to make ‘mistakes’ that are experienced as opportunities for learning instead of failures.

Our education system has a primarily deficiency-oriented view of learning that causes learners to have a deficiency-oriented view of themselves.

Healthy learning, however, needs the freedom to make ‘mistakes’ that are experienced as opportunities for learning instead of failures, because ‘making mistakes’ is an inherently valuable part of learning.

Prioritise learning over achievements

I recently listened to a podcast where two of the world’s best climbers, Hazel Findlay and Beth Rodden, talk about how the goal-orientation in the climbing culture (especially when it comes to professional climbers, who have to get amazing achievements done on a regular basis to satisfy their sponsors and social media followers) can be detrimental to learning. As it seems so straightforward to measure achievements in climbing – climbs completed –, it is easy to only value climbs completed, and not the experience of trying and learning that goes on regardless of the end result.

Hazel Findlay, who is a professional climber and climbing coach, draws a connection between the desire to achieve, the fear of failure and how both are detrimental to learning. If the completed climb is the only thing that counts, then the fear of not achieving this end result tends to become the dominating focus. Instead of focusing on the learning that happens in every attempt, whether ‘successful’ or not, many climbers prioritise achievement over learning. 1

The achievement culture at university is very similar. In the end, grades are the only result that counts for students, especially since their work isn’t even meant to be read for their ideas and perceived as a scholarly contribution; the only purpose of their work, according to the system, is to provide the grounds for grading.

The grading system at university encourages students to prioritise achievements over learning.

The big fallacy here is that we treat grades as if they were simply a reflection of learning. But actually, grades are abysmally bad at reflecting learning. 2 Learning is a process, not a result, and by prioritising the achievement grades represent, our education system discourages attention to the processes of learning and to the learning that happens in the process. 3

So, the same way the culture of professional climbing tends to encourage climbers to prioritise achievements over learning the grading system at university encourages students to prioritise grades over learning. Without this focus on grades as the prime achievements there would be less fear of failure and more opportunities to experience learning in the process and to learn from the process, no matter the end result.

Curiosity and creativity

Learning means that you try new things, often with a considerable likelihood of ‘failure’. The more you are willing to try with the risk of failure, the more likely you are to find out what works, that is, to learn something. In other words, the more curiosity and creativity go into that process, the greater is the likelihood of success and of this being a rewarding experience.

Therefore, learning has a lot to do with curiosity and creativity and taking risks – for all those things it is detrimental if other people constantly interfere, especially if those people have the power to assess and judge. Once we become worried about how others judge us, the focus of our learning activities shifts to what goes on in that person’s head, and curiosity about the thing we are trying to learn tends to get lost.

On top of that, the more power the ones judging you have and the more depends on their judgement, the more likely their judgement is to elicit feelings of fear and shame. And both fear and shame are highly detrimental to curiosity and creativity and hence to learning.

Mistakes provide valuable comparison

Thinking about mistakes as something to avoid or punish in learning is also problematic because in order to find out how to do things in a way that works, knowing what doesn’t work is immensely valuable. Making ‘mistakes’ helps us understand how to do something right by also having experienced ways to do something that don’t work well.

Seeing mistakes as part of learning means less frustration for teachers

Thinking about learning in terms of mistakes and failures leads to a lot of dissatisfaction for teachers, which often translates into an even more deficiency-oriented attitude towards students, which in turn feeds the toxic environment our education system tends to reproduce.

But, as academic writing expert Keith Hjortshoj points out in regard to student writing, “[l]earning how to write in new ways, in different fields of study, takes practice, and a lot of the weak writing that teachers complain about results from the unavoidable process of trial and error in learning any new skill.”4

Seeing ‘mistakes’ as a normal part of learning not only diminishes frustration on the teacher’s part. It can transform that frustration into a learning experience for teachers if they allow their students’ mistakes to challenge their assumptions about what students should be able to know and do and to inform them what their students’ learning and needs actually look like.

Learning as a source of agency

Learning can be one of the most effective and satisfying sources of self-efficacy and psychological well-being.

Learning can be one of the most effective and satisfying sources of experiencing agency and self-efficacy – and hence one of the most powerful preventions or remedies for mental illness –, but only if it is learning without the feeling that making ‘mistakes’ and ‘failing’ is bad.

I think it is one of the most tragic things about our education system that it has managed to turn something that can be such a powerful source of self-efficacy and psychological well-being – learning – into something that makes people sick.

Take people who are considered ‘lazy’ at school – they can be very quick and diligent learners when it comes to, for instance, mastering video games: the clear success conditions and instant feedback video games offer facilitate feelings of agency that learning at school rarely does. Instead of saying that people are addicted to video games, maybe we should rather say that they are ‘addicted’ to the very vital feeling of having agency, something they, sadly, don’t experience in our institutions of learning.

The floor is a better teacher

Learning that is most effective in facilitating feelings of agency and self-efficacy is learning where there is non-judgemental feedback on failure and success, like in climbing, ice-skating, playing video games or coding software.

How you learn that something you tried doesn’t work makes a difference. Family therapist Jesper Juul once said that the floor is usually a much better teacher to adventurous children than their parents, because the floor does not judge the child; it tells the child which actions are likely to result in pain, but it tells them without criticising and debasing them. 5

So, ironically, experiencing the freedom to make mistakes in learning is much easier if your teacher is the floor – or a climbing wall – rather than a teacher.

Teaching practices

But are there teaching practices which facilitate learning with the freedom to make ‘mistakes’? As as long as our education system clings to the toxic practice of grading, to implement this kind of learning is not easy.

But it is possible to create spaces of freedom in education if we change our own mindsets and if we learn to use the wiggle room that curricular structures afford us. Here are a couple of examples:

Changing mindsets

As Jessica writes in her article on Radical Acceptance, letting go of a cultivated discourse of frustration that focuses on how and why students don’t fulfil the ‘learning goals’ we set for them already goes a long way.

Replacing this deficiency-oriented mindset with a non-judgmental, solution-oriented stance that doesn’t dwell on ‘mistakes’ as a problem but rather accepts them as part of the relationship of teaching, enables her to adapt her teaching on the spot and find creative alternatives to deal with what students actually do, instead of comparing what they do with what she had wanted them to do.

At the heart of Jessica’s notion of Radical Acceptance, of Tyll’s notion of Unconditional Teaching as trust in the individual responsibility, autonomy, and accountability of his students, and of my notion of Unconditional Teaching as the recognition that true learning is always only self-directed lies the following:

It is the acknowledgment that students are always free to learn – and they are always free not to learn. When we take this seriously and actively respect this freedom, we learn to see our didactic and rhetoric ways to control learning – enforcing results, measuring success, rewarding performance and conformance, punishing failure and deviance, distributing praise and shame – as detrimental at worst and ephemeral at best: They are distractions from and obstructions of the freedom to learn that is inherent in every human being.

With this mindset, we can show our students how we tackle a particular academic practice and create opportunities for them to try it out, fail without censure, and eventually find their own way of doing it. We can reflect on ideas or strategies, we can talk about how to protect our mental health. What we cannot do, because it makes no sense, is to assign them a grade and tell them what they’ve been doing wrong.

Changing (or using) the curriculum

The easiest way to facilitate learning with the freedom to make mistakes is to create tasks, assignments and ungraded pass requirements that don’t have success or failure conditions so much as an intrinsic value to the students’ work. If students produce something that derives its worth from being part of their learning or research process instead of only being assigned worth once a teacher looks at and assesses it, then the term ‘mistake’ doesn’t even enter the picture.

At our university in Bielefeld where we work, this is possible because individual courses are not graded. Instead, students pass them by submitting a single ungraded assignment (Studienleistung).

The nature of this assignment is defined in the curriculum, but usually there are alternatives that teachers can choose from and the wording is vague. This is a good thing because it leaves a lot of freedom to make the pass requirements as constructive and self-directed for students as possible.

Examples for assignments we have used successfully that respect students’ freedom to make ‘mistakes’ are:

  • Research logs or commented reading lists where students record their exploratory research into primary source material or scholarly literature, or where they log the development of a research project or paper. Here, the focus is on processes not of knowledge acquisition but of academic pragmatics, on the craft that serves scholarly expression.

  • Learning reflections where students observe themselves at work and, for example, ‘write about writing’ are another form that is not about mistakes but about process.

  • In writing portfolios, students compile and select writing assignments that were given over the course of the semester, and they reflect on their texts and selection in a cover letter. These texts gain value not mainly as a product but as a material focus for self-awareness of process. (In addition, these portfolios allow instructors immensely valuable insights into how students think, work and learn.)

  • Student publications that are designed, peer-reviewed, edited and published by students themselves focus on students as fellow scholars who are part of the production and quality assurance of science.

The fact that at Bielefeld University these forms of ungraded requirements are possible is the result of a long process of curricular reforms in which student representatives exerted a lot of political agency against institutional resistance. But even under favourable conditions, we still have to work hard to use the curricular freedoms and to design assignments that respect students’ freedom to learn.

Building up toward graded exams

While in the process of studying grades are de-emphasized in individual seminars, these seminars are still packaged in modules that are completed with a module exam – which is graded after all. So at the end, we still have to assess a final product and translate it into a numerical mark to make student achievements measurable.

Even though that cannot be helped without further reform of the curriculum, we can use the freedom we have in the modules’ ungraded courses to design assignments so that students can use them as building blocks for the exams. Developing the module exams as organically as possible out of self-directed assignments makes the effort put into the assignments more meaningful and the graded exam, if it cannot be avoided, less high-stakes and more a part of the process.

The above examples show how this can be facilitated: Research logs, writing portfolios, and so on have the express purpose to generate material that can be used directly in graded term papers. They are designed to incite and support a process of planning and drafting that leads to well-developed scholarly outcomes. 6

Changing processes of grading

Lastly, we can also think about changing our practices of assessment if grading cannot be avoided within the structures we work in. Our prime example for how to do that is a revision-oriented supervision of graded term papers.

Usually, student papers are a kind of high-stakes performance that takes place in front of a critical, authoritative audience whose assessment has consequences for the student’s future, and it usually is a performance without rehearsal. 7 The grade and feedback students receive for their paper does nothing to help them improve the performance if they are not allowed to revise their text. 8

Because academic writing is one of the most complex cognitive activities for a human being to master, having only one chance per paper to get it right is a severe demand that makes no sense as academic practice. No professional scholar would accept these conditions for writing and expect meaningful outcomes, yet they seem completely normal for student writing. And then we wonder why students are afraid of writing or don’t experience their writing as a meaningful expression of ideas.

Alternatively, we ask students to submit late-stage drafts of their papers, which we then respond to as fellow scholars with a professional feedback and suggestions for revision. Depending on the student’s priorities, they can then decide to revise the paper or to submit it unrevised and have it graded. This practice allows students to ‘make mistakes’ without having them irreversibly punished, they are free to revise and improve their work, which makes our feedback meaningful, and they are also free to decide not to work any more on their texts if the feedback satisfies them that the grade will be good enough.

  1. Findlay, Hazel. “Beth: She Did Her Best.” Podcast, 31 Dec 2019, https://www.hazel-findlay.com/podcast↩︎

  2. Here are some of the things some of my grades reflect for me: that I am not a good mind reader under stress; that not trying to find my own approach to my subject, i.e., not thinking for myself but following the instructor’s directions as closely as possible is the only way to satisfy this specific instructor; that another instructor thought I should have written this paper with someone else and only bothered to tell me so after I had handed in the final version. ↩︎

  3. One of the effects of this deprioritising of learning is that instructors often have little awareness of their own processes, of how they actually have been learning things. Hence, they don’t include these things in their teaching and thus contribute to the naturalisation of the idea that learning is something that just happens to the people who are somehow well-suited for studying. ↩︎

  4. Keith Hjortshoj. The Transition to College Writing. 2nd ed., Bedford / St. Martin's, 2009, p. 58. ↩︎

  5. Jesper Juul. Aus Erziehung wird Beziehung. Authentische Eltern, kompetente Kinder. 8th ed., Herder, 2011, p. 53. (My translation; the German original says: “[D]er Fußboden [ist] ein besserer Lehrmeister [...] als die Eltern, weil er das Kind nicht beurteilt, aber das Kind lernt seine Lektion: Immer wenn du herumexperimentierst, kann es sein, dass du dir wehtust. [...] Der Fußboden teilt dir dies mit, ohne dich klein zu machen und dich zu kritisieren”.) ↩︎

  6. Note on building block module exams: This process of having course work be usable in exams might sound self-evident with regard to how professional scholarly work is done, but it is not how university usually works: Usually, the module exams are not inherently connected to course work, its verbatim use in the exams is discouraged under the bizzare pretense of avoiding ‘self-plagiarism’, or exams are designed in traditional ways that don’t allow for meaningful connection (worst-case example: timed tests of declarative knowledge). So even when curricular modularization opens up spaces of freedom, these spaces have to be used in intelligent and creative ways. ↩︎

  7. See academic writing experts Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj: “Practice, rehearsal, or coaching are essential preparations for all kinds of performance [...]. For most undergraduates, however, writing has been a series of performances for potentially critical, authoritative audiences, without rehearsal.” —Katherina Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj. The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2004, p. 78. ↩︎

  8. According to John Bean, “[c]omposition research suggests that unless students do something with the teacher’s comments – by making the suggested revisions – the teacher’s commenting time is largely wasted. Comments, in other words, do not transfer well to later papers; they need to be applied directly to the work in progress.” —John Bean. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 313. ↩︎


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