Why children must make more mistakes

“Trial and error” – try, make mistakes, do better. This is how it always works when we humans want to learn something properly: with feeling and reason. But we adults often stand in the way of children. We spoke to education researcher Gerd Gigerenzer about the right culture of mistakes and why mistakes can motivate children rather than slow them down.

7 insights for a positive failure culture

Children learn from mistakes. You must be allowed to make mistakes and understand them. We adults must be careful not to reveal too much of our “how it works” and “how to do it” views. This is also what Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer, director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and since 2020 director of the Harding Center for Risk Competence at the University of Potsdam, says. He reveals which insights we adults need to be aware of in order to support our children.

#1 Mistakes are often a good thing

There is always something negative about the word “failure”. There are also “good” mistakes, which are important for lasting learning. We should be more aware of that, says Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer. “An example: The child learns the language, but it rubs against the irregular action words. For example, it says ‘I thought’ instead of ‘I thought’. It’s a good mistake. It shows that it can apply the rule – just like ‘I did’. By making mistakes with the much smaller number of irregular verbs, he also becomes aware of the exceptions to the rule.”

#2 Failure is an opportunity for advancement

Handling an error correctly is absolutely critical. We should begin to see mistakes not as stupidity, but as an opportunity for advancement and learning. Because in this way it often becomes clear to us how something just doesn’t work and how we can perhaps do it better or differently. This is exactly how children develop their skills. However, we prevent that if we convey to them that you must not make mistakes. Mistakes should therefore never remain unused, according to Gerd Gigerenzer: “We researchers structure our research in such a way that we can learn from mistakes. We try new things to make good mistakes.”

“A bad mistake is one you don’t learn from.”

Professor Gerd Gigerenzer

#3 There is not always just ONE solution to a problem

A typical scene at school: a teacher asks the children how to solve a problem. Some ideas emerge, but none are “the right solution”. Therefore, they are ignored until a child says the expected answer. The problem with this is that if the student is passed over with the wrong or not quite right answer, he or she learns nothing. Scenes like this often take place at home. Opportunities to exercise judgment and discovery are thereby lost.

Gerd Gigerenzer also warns about this: “We still teach too much according to the scheme of telling the children, this is right, this is wrong, there is exactly one solution. But this is usually not the case. We give them more to take on , when we say: Look, here’s a problem, you can now come up with solutions. Also in school, we should create a stronger forum to produce ideas, defend them and be able to give up arguments if they are wrong.”

#4 Children must have time to solve problems themselves

We adults tend to quickly become “know-it-alls” due to our large head start in lived experiences. This often begins when our children make their first attempts at play. “Look, the ball must go in the round hole, the dice in the square!” It continues later. The child does not succeed at something on the first try, he is frustrated. As parents, we sometimes intervene prematurely so that the child can move on.

But in truth we are denying him an important experience. That sometimes it takes several attempts before something succeeds, and that it is quite possible to find a solution to a problem yourself, even if it can take a long time. It is therefore important that we take a step back and give the child the opportunity to have his own experiences, including mistakes and frustration. When they themselves have found out how something works, the joy is all the greater, and the learning effect is even greater.

#5 Failure fosters one’s own sense of discovery

By allowing our children to have their own experiences, they learn important skills. Finding your own way through mistakes and finding solutions are skills that will always be useful later in life. In addition, learning with the self-emerging effect strengthens the personality.

This feeling of being able to dare something without constantly being thrown out of one’s own way with small and minute corrections is very valuable for children. This is probably also one of the reasons why they love the stories of adventurers and explorers so much – because they dare to follow their instinctive curiosity, even when things can go wrong. And often your own mistake is a help. Without him, they often would not have made any progress at all. So, in the end, your own sense of discovery, the foundation of lifelong learning, prevails.

#6 We should give children more responsibility

Not only children mature, mothers and fathers also have to develop further: In terms of how much they trust their children to do. From an early age we should start letting go more and more in some ways. “If we protect our children too much from any risk, the children will pay a price,” warns Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer. “A typical example is the increase in allergies due to the fear of even small amounts of dirt. Overall, we do not trust children and young people enough. We should give them more responsibility as they get older. They will make mistakes and can learn from them.”

Adolescence in particular is a time when young people quickly make decisions that may not be particularly well thought out. But that’s part of life, after all we were all at this particular age. The typical carelessness of this time often causes parents not to trust their children with such a great sense of responsibility. But: “But it is also a mistake to deny young people who are already willing to take responsibility. They have the right to this opportunity to mature,” says Gerd Gigerenzer.

“Overall, we don’t trust children and young people enough. We should give them more responsibility as they get older.”

Professor Gerd Gigerenzer

#7 Parents and teachers should be aware of mistakes

We must learn to put the knowledge advantage we have as adults with more life experience behind compared to children who are just learning and discovering and accepting that they make “good” and “bad” mistakes and thus gain experience. Of course, no one should fable about a child’s insistence that 2 + 2 = 5, but at this point they may be asked to prove their mathematical discovery, such as making 5 apples out of 2 and 2 apples.

There are many teachers who already make their lessons “error friendly” and let their students try things themselves. You absorb mistakes and ask yourself if there is an idea of ​​your own in it. We parents can do the same by being aware of the error. It takes courage, because even a “wrong” climbing technique on the playground or the awkward trying around on the bike is part of it – the whole person is always learning. But it is worth it. Because the future needs brave thinkers outside the box and our children need genuine joy in learning.

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Image credit: Unsplash / Xavier Mouton Photography

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