Great Mistakes

This year, Spark Studio has been exploring the concept of Great Mistakes. These are regular old mistakes—a scraped knee, a broken toy—made “great” by identifying something learned from them.

I first heard about Great Mistakes last year in the Discovery Studio. During a launch, the guide asked if anyone had made any Great Mistakes that week. Without hesitation, each elementary-aged learner gave an example of a failure they had experienced that week and what it had taught them for the future. It was obvious that they had been thinking about these all week and were eager to share them. 

I knew we had to bring the idea to Spark. At TVS, we spend a lot of time prompting learners to try new things, do challenging work, and step outside their comfort zones. Those things require them to shed their fear of making a misstep. Not an easy thing to do! But what better way to reframe their thinking than by celebrating those mistakes?

How to do this? We began with a launch in Session 1 that introduced the concept. At the end, each Spark learner reflected on one misstep they had made and what lesson they could take away. They were surprisingly forthcoming and reflective. A short puppet show next modeled the best way to turn those snafus into Great Mistakes. We also read books–“The Book of Mistakes,” by Corinna Luyken and “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg, about the merits of embracing mistakes and turning them into something you may not have thought of otherwise.

Reading “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg

Bit by bit, we began to overhear pieces of conversations from Spark learners. “Hey, you just made a Great Mistake!” one learner told another on the playground. Parents also started saying that their learners had explained the term at home. 

Trial and error during outdoor play

The adults in the studio also started modeling the approach. For example, I started highlighting my mistakes instead of downplaying them. “Oh look, I made a mistake! Do you know that grown-ups make mistakes, too? I’m going to make it a great one: next time, I will proofread that chart before I print it. Thanks for catching that.” 

Tough as it seemed at first, this practice was kind of liberating for me as a guide. I didn’t have to be perfect in the studio, and I started celebrating my own gaffes. Imagine that! But more importantly, the children loved it. They’d smile when I owned up to an oversight and quietly cheered me on when I proposed a solution for the future. Could it be that they were relieved to see adults make mistakes? Might they infer that it’s OK for them to make mistakes, too?

I came across another suggestion in a course I’m taking on the book “Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom,” by Jane Nelsen and Chip DeLorenzo. It has to do with our reactions to our children’s mistakes. If we validate their emotions around the mistake and let them come up with a solution, they feel empowered rather than ashamed. Our response might sound something like this: “I’m so sorry. You must be feeling really sad about what happened. I’ve made so many mistakes that I can really understand. How did it happen? I know you well enough to know that you can learn something really good from this. How do you think you could fix this?”

As they say in the Discovery Studio, heroes are not people who never make mistakes. (They actually make a lot.) Heroes are just people who accept responsibility and learn from them. When learners embrace that idea and lose their fear of failure, they can go farther than they ever thought possible!

When they’re not afraid to make mistakes, children are more willing to just try!

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