Why I Want My Students To Get It Wrong

I LOVE mistakes! I love it when a student experiments with their playing and something goes wrong. OK, not hideously, crushingly wrong. That would probably deter most people from even trying again. But a bit wrong, a bit unexpected... THAT'S when the real learning takes place.


Paul Harris, Simultaneous Learning and Mistakes

I've been thinking a lot about mistakes recently as I've been reading Paul Harris' book Simultaneous Learning [London, 2014]. In it he qualifies a statement made in another of his books, The Virtuoso Teacher [London, 2012], in which he claims that by teaching through Simultaneous Learning, students will NOT make mistakes! I found this to be quite a bold claim. In Simultaneous Learning he allows that students WILL make mistakes but they will be small and the student will be able to identify what the mistake was and so self-correct.

I think we can all be in agreement that huge mistakes are just not fun. Following a complete disaster many students might not even want to continue with playing the piano. Why do something that is hard, not fun and goes wrong?!

After all, everyone likes what they are good at, so they do more of it, and get even better at it!

Harris' claim that by teaching through Simultaneous Learning, students will make only small mistakes, and few of them, is reasonable: Carefully scaffolded teaching and learning will mean that students are never going to take a huge, risky leap. Students will always be trying challenges for which they are suitably prepared.

But I STILL Love Mistakes!

So, if I'm in agreement that big mistakes are bad and good teaching leads to fewer mistakes, why am I so keen for my students to make mistakes?

Partly because I believe that it's through MAKING your own mistakes that you learn best (I'll explain why in a bit) and partly it's because CREATIVITY can be sparked by mistakes.

How Do Mistakes Help You Learn?

When you make a mistake it's a far more memorable situation than something just going smoothly to plan. 

The real learning however, requires extra effort and this is what I want my students to do in lessons: If you make a mistake and ignore it, you may very well learn that mistake (see this post about practice NOT making perfect) But if you STOP and ask yourself some important questions, you may learn much more than if something had just gone well (which can even happen by accident!)

What questions should you be asking?

1. WHAT went wrong?

2. WHY did it go wrong?

3. HOW can I make it right?

Therein lies the route to real understanding. It may be that you need help to answer some of these questions. That's not a problem! But by taking the time to consider these questions you WILL make real progress.

I don't really imagine that this is terribly contentious. But hopefully it explains WHY I want my students to make mistakes.

Can Mistakes Help Me Get Creative?

YES! There are many case studies in the Research & Development world of product design mistakes that went on to be best sellers in their own right: Post-It notes are an example of a "failed" adhesive. An unexpected problem opens up new possibilities by considering things from a different perspective.

This can apply brilliantly to improvisation and composition! Unexpected harmonies or accidental melodies can lead to completely new musical ideas that you are creating. So, once again, I LOVE mistakes!

Not Everyone Loves Mistakes (Yet...)

Unfortunately not everyone feels quite the same as me. Many students, for fear of making a mistake will not even try a piece or an activity. 

"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new" - Albert Einstein

It's really important, as a teacher, to create a safe, supportive environment in which students feel happy to try things out and make mistakes. It can be helpful to happily make your own mistakes in front of them but most importantly, be encouraging of all attempts made by students and incredibly positive about any mistakes that they make. WELCOME their mistake :) Discuss their mistake, make it a routine to work through the key questions: What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? How can I make it right? In this way, students will become comfortable with making mistakes and will see them as a positive, if not essential, step to succeeding at and enjoying the piano. In this way, we will have brave students.

How Do You Feel About Mistakes?

I would love to hear about your perspective on mistakes, how you deal with mistakes and how you encourage others to approach their mistakes. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.