To Err is Progress

Learn From Mistakes Move Forward gears people marching, climbing
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Fear of making a mistake or asking a stupid question is a legitimate problem. Sir Ken Robinson in his TED talk: “How schools kill creativity” talks about how the education system makes people fear being wrong. This fear of being wrong can squash our creativity. If we always keep ourselves in check, so that we don’t make mistakes, we will never take chances. He states we need to be prepared to be wrong.

I often say to my students “There is no such thing as a stupid question!”  I’ve said this many times.  However, when I put myself in the position of student, I sometimes feel like my question might be stupid.

Recently, I found myself in the position of student asking a question.  I had been taking a class dealing with acoustic phonetics.  I found it very interesting, especially how everything has a natural frequency.  It had been a while since I had taken a science-type course and occasionally I got tripped up by terminology and other concepts that I should have known.  I thought I did a really great job at pretending I got it.  I didn’t want to blow my cover by asking a “stupid” question.

Near the end of the course a very important question came to my mind.  The answer was relevant to the final paper I was working on and I needed the answer to complete the assignment.  I researched, but I couldn’t find the answer.  I agonized about asking the professor.  I thought I should have known the answer.  I was stuck between and rock and a hard place.  I had to ask.  I mustered up the courage and put it out there.

I had asked it.  The professor looked at me and smiled (that wasn’t a good sign).  He answered me and said “That’s a very good question!  I’ve been thinking about that myself recently, and you know, I don’t know the answer either ……”

This experience really made me reflect upon what I do, as a teacher, to lessen the fear for my students because I know that anxiety hinders language acquisition. Making mistakes needs to become a normal part of the activities that occur in the classroom. I try to make errors seem positive. My new classroom slogan is: “Errors are evidence of progress”. I have even gone so far as to challenge my students to correct me when I make an error (and I don’t know about you but I can’t seem to spell very well when I write on the board). I feel that the “error find” challenge really has destigmatized the idea of making a mistake.

Identifying and acknowledging errors in a way that helps students progress is a very important component to teaching. What techniques do you use to help language students understand the value in making errors?


Robinson, K. (2006). How schools kill creativity. Retrieved from

Hi, I’m Gwen Zeldenrust. After a brief absence from the profession, I realized that teaching is my passion and the path that my career should follow. Most of my practice has been focused on teaching ESL to adults in Ontario. In addition to that, I’ve been a trainer for an insurance company, a teaching assistant for several professors at university, taught English in Japan and Core-French at the local school board. While I’ve been teaching ESL I’ve also been working on a project which has developed organically among a group of teachers. Under the name of Language Foundations, we’ve produced a video that teaches strategies for interacting successfully in Canada. The video project has inspired in me a true passion for writing. I love being able to reach out with my thoughts, share ideas and discuss different perspectives. I think writing and teaching are very complementary!


2 thoughts on “To Err is Progress”

  1. I agree that it’s imperative that we create a safe space in which students can make errors and not feel bad about that. My university French professor said we had to make mistakes, that it was the ONLY way to progress. That helped me loosen up a bit. On the other hand, when I was taking Persian, I remember refusing to speak to my tutor until I was sure I could form a sentence perfectly. He was exasperated with me, but I wouldn’t budge.
    In my ESL literacy class, I try to make it safe both for those taking risks and those who like to stay quiet a while, cogitating. One thing I do is make a fool of myself often. Another thing I do is try to pronounce words in their language. We laugh, and the atmosphere becomes lighter, laced with humour.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      Your classroom environment sounds very conducive to learning! I think that the teacher’s attitude toward mistake making really sets the tone. What a great idea; pronouncing words in their languages. It sounds like a lot of fun!

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