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Virginia Journal of Education

Live and Learn

by Alina Tugend

The premise of my book, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, is that we’re told when we’re young that we learn by making mistakes, but as we get older, most of us dread and avoid them.

I don’t think that this belief serves us well. We become afraid to take risks, to try new things and to work creatively because we might make mistakes.

For educators, the message is even more insidious. Your job is to help students understand that they have to blunder, goof up and fail in order to learn. But neither teachers nor students are generally rewarded for focusing on and working through mistakes.
Success, too often, for both groups, is defined as high marks on tests. And if results are all that matter in education, then mistakes play no positive role. They’re only helpful if we believe that the process of learning – which inevitably must include the process of erring - is just as, or more, important than getting to the correct answer.
What does this idea of process mean when we’re talking about mistakes and education? A great way to study this is to look at some of the fascinating research comparing our country’s cultural concepts regarding teaching and mistakes compared with Japanese culture.
I know there are vast differences between the American and Japanese education system. We’re a nation full of immigrants with an enormous variety of languages and needs, while most East Asian countries are far more homogenous. In addition, in the U.S., increasing pressure regarding test scores can severely limit teachers’ opportunities to spend time dwelling on mistakes.
Nonetheless, the different approaches to mistakes aren’t simply due to teaching styles or curriculums; it grows out of a fundamental disparity between North American and Japanese culture.
One of the main dissimilarities, broadly speaking, is that Japan is oriented toward the community and the group, while the United States is a highly individualistic society. This cultural difference is also reflected in concepts of self-esteem. A great deal of research has found that North Americans tend to be encouraged by success—if they do something right, then they want to keep doing it right, but if they fail, they’re less likely to persevere. On the other hand, the Japanese are more likely to see failure as an impetus to improve themselves.
In Japan, making a mistake isn’t a reflection of your lack of ability or intelligence, but simply that you haven’t learned something yet.
Here is an interesting finding: In one survey, Americans of European descent estimated that 36 percent of intelligence comes from one’s efforts, Asian-Americans estimated 45 percent, and Japanese 55 percent. 
Unlike in this country, the Japanese emphasis in lower education is far more on effort than end product, and this is reflected in the approach to mistakes.
In her book, Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education, Catherine C. Lewis recounts feeling uncomfortable at first “when children’s mistakes were bared for all to see. Don’t children feel humiliated when they put an incorrect math solution on the blackboard? Or when their drawings are singled out to look like stick figures?” But Lewis noted that there was a reason this wasn’t considered mortifying – the community sense of cooperation that dominated classroom values.
“Often teachers asked for a show of hands from students who had obtained correct and incorrect answers to a problem and the show of hands for incorrect answers were often substantial,” she writes. “Students who criticized their own thinking were warmly acknowledged, as were students who explained the thinking behind their mistakes, so that as one teacher said, ‘Everyone in the class can learn from the students who tried to solve the problem this way.’ Mistakes became opportunities to help classmates rather than failures to be hidden.”
James Stigler, a UCLA psychology professor who has written extensively on Asian and American teaching practices, says that “for Americans, errors tend to be interpreted as an indication of failure in learning the lesson. For Chinese and Japanese, they are an index of what still needs to be learned.”
Prof. Stigler told me that he has seen videos “where a student spends 12 minutes explaining why he added denominators and the teachers never says, ‘That’s a mistake.’ The teacher would say, “I don’t understand, why is this the answer? And the student would try to explain and couldn’t answer. Making a mistake doesn’t make you better but examining what happens makes you better.”
In an American classroom, far less is done in front of the entire class, and if it is, an American teacher would be much more likely to rush in and try to correct the error so the child will not be embarrassed.
“We translated some textbook pages from a Japanese math textbook,” Stigler told me. “There were a really interesting note in the teacher’s edition, and it said: ‘The most common mistake students will make in adding fractions is that they will add the denominators.’ Then it said: ‘Do not correct this mistake. If you correct it, they will immediately stop doing it. But what you really want is for them to take several weeks to understand the consequences of adding the denominators and why that does not work.’”

 Here’s where I bumped up against what seemed to be a paradox. How does the Japanese apparently greater acceptance of mistakes and failure fit with this idea of shame and saving face, which is such a large part of the culture?
If we look at making mistakes in private versus public life, it begins to make more sense. Let’s use the analogy of putting on a play. Most of us would agree that rehearsals are the time to make mistakes, to learn, to improve, while we want the performance to be as flawless as possible. If we view team practices or classrooms as rehearsals, then that is the arena where mistakes are welcomed and used in Japan, far more than in North America.
In the classroom in the United States, the emphasis is much more on the product—the A’s and B’s—than the process, while the Japanese are more interested in the process. But in a public forum, the Japanese fear failing more than we do. If we screw up publicly, it’s our personal reputation, but in Japan, it’s letting everyone else down.
Of course, some teachers in this country have developed very successful ways of teaching using mistakes. Wendy Bray, when she was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, wrote her Ph.D dissertation on learning from mistakes during a classroom discussion of mathematics.
She looked at “Lincoln Heights” (a pseudonym), a large urban elementary school in the southeastern United States where the majority of students live in poverty and don’t speak English as their first language. Bray observed four third-grade teachers giving math lessons in their classrooms for one school year.
Bray contrasts “Ms. Rosena” and “Ms. Larsano” in the way they accept and use mistakes in teaching math to their students, who had failed and were repeating the year. Ms. Rosena told her class to take game pieces to represent the 24 children in the classroom and arrange the pieces in equal rows. She then had the children partner up and exchange solutions and asked them to give a thumbs-up if they understood their partner’s solution. Some did and some didn’t.
Then several solutions were discussed, including a boy named Jeremy’s. Jeremy had put 14 pieces in one crooked row and 10 in another.
Ms. Rosena asks Jeremy how he came up with the arrangement. Once he explains that he put 14 in one row and 10 in another, she asks him, “What does this mean to you – equal rows? What does this mean?”

“Like if you have two, you need to put two blacks on the other side,” Jeremy responds.
Ms. Rosena and Jeremy discuss this, and Ms. Rosena asks, “Is there a way that you can arrange this to make 24 in equal rows?”
She doesn’t rush Jeremy back to his seat because he clearly has erred. She doesn’t just hand him the correct answer. She doesn’t make him feel stupid. She tries to get to the core of his thinking. She then opens up the discussion to the classroom and one student tentatively suggests trying 12 rows of two.
Ms. Larsano, on the other hand, asks her class, composed of children who were just learning English, to answer the question “Twenty-three candles are arranged with three in each row. How many rows are there?”
Five children put their solution on the board, and Ms. Larsano pointed to Andre’s, which had three rows of eight. Ms. Larsano asks the class what the total is, and some reply, “Twenty-four.”
She then asks how many she wanted, and some students say “Twenty-three.”
She proceeds to erase one candle, points out the rows are no longer equal and tells Andre, “I’m not telling you that you are wrong. I’m just explaining to you what you did. So he put that 24 divided by eight equal three. So he did have three groups. The only problem was that he put one more. But it’s okay, it’s a model.”
Unlike Ms. Rosena, Ms. Larsano controlled most of the exchange, didn’t let the children figure out why Andre’s solution was incorrect and work through how to fix it, and reassured Andre he wasn’t really wrong, even though he was.
Now, Ms. Larsano’s intentions were good. Bray writes that “she intentionally avoided action that she perceived might hurt students’ feelings or discourage them from participating in the future.” And unlike Ms. Rosena, who believed that examining mistakes would help her children develop an understanding, and this is crucial, of the underlying concept, and a flexibility that would allow them to try different approaches to solving problems, Ms. Larsano believed that students didn’t have the ability to understand math problems before they had been taught procedures.
Her role as a teacher was to provide necessary explanations and directions, she believed. And like all the other teachers, except Ms. Rosena, Ms. Larsano believed that exposing flawed solutions might confuse children, who had fragile mathematical understanding.
Ms. Rosena, on the other hand, believed that students would learn best when, rather than being handed solutions, they would all try to figure them out together.
“By mid-year,” Bray writes, “Ms. Rosena’s students appeared to view mistakes as part of the learning process. They did not seem uncomfortable or unhappy when their flawed solutions were shared. Quite the opposite, students appeared motivated to understand correct and flawed solutions.”
By spring, students were commenting on other students’ solutions without being prompted by the teacher.
Ms. Rosena’s teaching stemmed partially from her own school experience. She told Bray: “When I was in school, I was not good in math. So the teachers were always showing off the people who…were right. But they never took my way of solving the problem and explained to me why it was wrong. So I never really quite got how to do it right. I think we are focusing on what students are doing right and sometimes not enough on what they are doing wrong.”
Ms. Rosena didn’t just correct incorrect answers; she dug deep to understand where the students went wrong and to see whether their answers were grounded in a misunderstanding of a fundamental mathematics concept. Her student’s also came away with another lesson: to be a community of learners. They had a stake in each other’s learning as well as their own, in contrast to Ms. Larsano, who saw herself largely as the sole source of knowledge.
And although many factors go into children’s success on tests, it’s interesting to note that Ms. Rosena’s class achieved a 78 percent pass on the math standardized achievement test, compared with 43 percent in Ms. Larsano’s.
If such an approach is extrapolated beyond mathematics and the classroom, think of what we can learn. To be okay with mistakes and build on them. To understand there’s often more than one way to attack and solve a problem. To be confident enough to question. And to learn for the sake of learning, not simply to get the right answer.

Unfortunately, that is not the atmosphere in most classrooms. As many educators have told me, their students have a very low threshold for dealing with confusion, become extremely anxious about making mistakes and depend on adults to see them through most obstacles they encounter.

Of course, teachers can’t do it on their own. Parents – and I speak as a mother of a high-schooler and a middle-schooler – also must learn not to rush in whenever their children stumble or fail; they must allow them to learn and develop the resilience so necessary to succeeding in life. I write extensively about that in my book.
But educators have a special role, and I’ve been surprised at how much this issue seems to resonate among the many I’ve spoken with. Several fourth grade teachers in my district have developed a curriculum around mistakes, noting that “it is our hope that by immersing ourselves in new learning about the culture of mistakes, we can begin to help our students acquire emotional resources that allow them to better cope with the confusion that is an important part of learning.”

Tugend (, author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, (Riverhead,2011), has been a journalist for nearly 30 years and for the past six has written the ShortCuts column for the New York Times business section. She was awarded the 2011 Best in Business Award for Personal Finance by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.


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