• Paul Wade

Does it all have to be right? Why mistakes are good.

A lot of you will have been sent work for your children to do at home and will, understandably, want them to do as well as possible in all of that work. Here's the thing though, that's not actually (entirely) the point. The work that teachers set for children in class is necessarily almost always a bit too hard for them to do. I know it sounds cruel, but it isn't - honest.

The purpose of setting work that is challenging is threefold. First, there needs to be somewhere for learning to 'go'. If every child completes the work, with complete accuracy, in five minutes flat, it means that they probably already knew how to do all of the set work and they haven't really learned anything new. We want them to encounter challenge, find ways to overcome it and become more independent learners.


The second reason for setting challenging work is to assess how much children have learned. Generally, a part of each task is intended to be completed by pretty much everyone, based upon learning they should already have secured. By extending things, teachers can find out how far that learning has gone and plan for next steps for everyone.

The last, and this is the big one, I think, is to discover what children haven't learned yet. To find and analyse the mistakes. What did they get wrong, why did they get it wrong and, therefore, how can we fix it?


Mistakes are good. They are vital. They tell us far more about a child's learning than the stuff they get right. They indicate the current learning limits, how those limits have been reached and give some clues about how to extend those limits.


A few examples for you:

  • A child has written 7x5 = 30. So what do we do? We know it should be 35, but that doesn't matter as much as working out why they wrote 30. There are a few possibilities, maybe they were counting up in 5s and started at 0, rather than five. That way they get 0,5,10,15,20,25,30. They count seven times and reach 30. So we need to remind them that when they are counting in multiples, they need to start from the first multiple. Or perhaps they were just rushing - it happens.

  • Perhaps they have spelled the word worked, as workd. So we ask them to spell a few more words that follow the same pattern (i.e when you say them out loud, you don't hear the short e sound in the -ed ending) such as pulled, wished, arrived. Then try some where you do hear it, batted, for example. Is the same mistake happening or not? Then we can see if they base the spelling error on what they hear or if they have over generalised and just decided that all words that end with a d sound just end with a d.

  • I could go on, but you will get bored.

Image by Nina Garman from Pixabay


Once we unpick the route of the error, we can help the learning to go forward. If we just look to get all the answers right, this can't happen. We also risk perfectionist syndrome, whereby children decide that, unless every answer is completely correct, they cannot do the work. This most commonly affects writing in English and humanities subjects (children can get a clearer sense of 'right' answers in maths and science). If we view all tasks (including maths) as a learning journey and celebrate mistakes as highlights along that journey, children can enjoy the learning process more.


It will be hard to hold yourself back from going "but that's wrong", but once you get used to letting children have a go and then unpicking things afterwards, you will all enjoy the work more.


I hope this helped a bit with parents worrying that their child can't do set work and maybe means fewer emails to teachers complaining that work is too hard.

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