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…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

“We Should Celebrate Mistakes”


(NOTE: You can see videos of my student’s final projects for this unit here)

As regular readers, I’m a fan of Carol Dweck’s work, notwithstanding my critique of her recent New York Times op ed on willpower.

I was recently watching a video of a group discussing Professor Dweck’s book, with her participating via Skype. I was struck by one comment she made, saying “we should celebrate mistakes.”

So, today I began to experiment with a lesson on doing just that. I’m going to refine it a lot more, and I think my colleagues might try it out in a number of different classes and make it even better. Here’s what I’m doing — I’m all ears if you have some ideas. My final version will be adaptable to all levels of students — mainstream and ESL:

Today, I began to very briefly talk about how we learn from our mistakes and, if we aren’t making any, then we’re not taking enough risks. I asked my ESL Beginners to write down what they felt were two common mistakes they made in learning English. They were all pretty broad — pronunciation, remembering new words, etc. They then shared what they wrote in groups of three.

Tomorrow, I’ll ask them to review what they wrote, and then try to remember specific times when they made mistakes in those more general categories. Then, I’ll ask them to write what they learned from each of those experiences. I’ll give the example of “I said ‘bottle’ the wrong way and people couldn’t understand me. My friend helped me learn the correct way to say it.” Students will then share what they wrote in small groups.

Later tomorrow, I’ll create an inductive data set (read more about inductive data sets here) listing each specific example and what they learned from it separately.

On Wednesday, students will need to cut each item out and paste them on a sheet in categories (I’ll probably just use the common general problems they wrote today for the categories they’ll use). I’ll use the typical “moves” of an inductive data set (see the earlier link for information about those, or see my books).

Thursday, they will review the content of each category, think about them, and add new examples they can think of — including mistakes they made and what they learned from each one. Students will share them in groups, and I hope students will see what a vast amount of knowledge they have learned from making mistakes.

Friday, each student will get a Post-It. I’ll ask them to pick one mistake they listed and what they wrote they learned, have them share in the Friday groups where we review weekly homework, and paste them on a “Mistake Wall.” We’ll make this a regular weekly event.

What do you think?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. “Disasters teach more than successes.” is the first line of William J. Broad’s article on July 19, 2010 in the New York Times entitled “Taking Lessons From What Went Wrong”

    He writes about learning from failures, referencing the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse.
    “But failures, sometimes appalling, are inevitable, and given this fact, engineers say it pays to make good use of them to prevent future mistakes. ”
    The article is an excellent read, I highly recommend it.

    Learning from our mistakes is natural, and often underrated by our students. I even try to stop my math students from erasing!
    I like your ideas for leveraging the mistakes, and will be following your blog to see how it develops. Thanks!

  2. Can you explain more precisely what your data sets look like? I want to use this idea with my 3rd grade ESL class.

  3. Larry – You’ve zoomed in on one of my favorite themes. While I have never consciously “celebrated” mistakes, I do consistently encourage students to make “good mistakes”, defined as natural errors that we can learn from, so we can continue to improve and new, different, and better mistakes.

    Videotaping students certainly helps here since they can watch their own presentations or discussions. Sometimes having students transcribe their own speech yields surprises, but often you don’t even need to resort to such rigorous examination. Students can often see where they have made verb tense errors, searched for vocabulary, or used the wrong word form on their own. Seeing, in this case, is often believing.

    Allow me to quote a Japanese business leader here. ““Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. But make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice,” advised Sony Chairman Akio Morita. While learning English requires us to be more understanding and patient of “good mistakes”, this quote emphasizes the value of making mistakes – even in the business world.

  4. I think we learn most from those moments when we didn’t feel sure of ourselves, made a mistake, and someone helped to guide us with kindness in a better direction. We also learn a lot with the ‘confident’ mistakes we make, so sure of our faulty thinking. Learning to laugh about it and share it with others who are sharing their mistakes will build confidence in trying new things.
    Thanks for presenting a lesson outline for what this could look like in practice. Part of this process needs to have a mindfulness exercise about our assumptions, and a discussion of why that conclusion was incorrectly reached. We also need to make sure students are not putting themselves down for their mistakes, but rather seeing it as a part of growth and courage.

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