Turning Mistakes into Learning Opportunities

Hello colleagues, Jessie Stadd posted a brief video in another LINCS discussion entitled "My Favorite No" https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/class-warm-up-routine. This video illustrates a great formative assessment technique that shows how mistakes are very often the very best opportunities to learn.

This warm up routine involves students in solving a review math problem which is placed on the board at the beginning of each class. The students solve the problem individually on an index card. The teacher collects the cards and quickly sorts them according to those that are correct and incorrect. She carefully chooses one of the incorrect problems that will give her and the students the chance to emphasize what the student has done right before offering instruction on how to do the problem correctly.

The most important goal here is to demonstrate to learners that mistakes are opportunities for learning. This is a wonderful routine to build into a math class, but I can see its potential usefulness in ESL, too.

What stands out for you in this video?

What ideas do you have for adapting “My Favorite No” to your instruction?

How do you talk with learners about their mistakes?

What are some additional instructional strategies for turning mistakes into learning opportunities?

It would be great to get some discussion going on this topic.

Best, Susan


This is a very impressive demonstration by a master teacher.  I especially like that this technique assures two things: those who made mistakes remain comfortably anonymous, and everyone, including students who are already proficient in this skill, gets a comprehensive review of all the skills applied to the problem.  Adults, whose efficacy in the world can be severely challenged by their lack of ability to communicate, can feel demeaned by having their mistakes exposed, and class should be a place where their comfort and security enjoy a high priority. Student engagement in this activity is noticeably and understandably high.  My own teaching would benefit from information on more strategies like this.  Thanks for posting.

Deborah, I agree with what you say about the beauty of the anonymity provided through this technique. I have done something similar with student writing, which can also be looked at and discussed anonymously with a class. Placing emphasis on what the student is doing well with writing is always essential before inviting questions from the class about a piece of writing. Just as the teacher in the video does, explaining why something is good is essential. For instance, if a learner has used descriptive vocabulary effectively, I'd want to emphaisze how the description works well because it makes it easy to imagine the scene.

Some of you know Andy Nash. Many years ago, Andy taught me a great lesson about how to focus on revising writing for content in the initial round. In the first round, we read a piece of writing as interested readers and focus on the content of the writing. I like using sticky notes to write questions that are raised about the content rather than writing directly on students' papers. Similarly when using technology, the editig feature of Word allows for comments and questions to be added in the margins. Once students are familiar with this kind of feedback, they are ready to engage in peer review, and they can also use sticky notes to write questions about the content of a peer's writing. 

After students revise their writing for content, we are ready for the editing round. This can be done as whole class, similar to the "My Favorite No" video. We can also do this work in pairs or individually.

I'd love to hear some more reactions to this interesting video from others on our discussion list.

Happy Friday!


Hi Connie, Thank you for posting this Phil Daro video, which focuses on how math teachers in the US most often focus on teaching students how to get the right answer rather than on understanding the math. This is in contrast to teachers in Japan whose goal is for students to understand math concepts. I remember seeing this video before, and it was great to watch it again. I love Daro's quote from his high school daughter, "I don't have time to understand the math. I just want to get it right on the test." .Perhaps a fairly common quip from adults who are studying for a high school equivalency exam!

It's clear that the new standards require students to understand the math they are learning so well that they can explain their thinking. In other words, they need to  understand the math itself, not just the procedure used to get the right answer. Math tricks do not teach math principles.

What do other math teachers out there think of the ideas presented in Daro's video? In what ways are you ensuring the adults you work with truly understand the math you are teaching? How can teachers use wrong answers as an important part of the process to teach essential math principles?

Cheers, Susan

SME, Assessment

Thank you Susan for this terrific video resource!  It's a great simple activity and can easily be transferred to ESL errors.  One of my favorite essays (and videos) on making mistakes comes from John Cleese.  You can read the transcript here: http://my.ilstu.edu/~eostewa/ART309/Mistakes.htm

I also tell my students: "If you don't make mistakes, I don't have a job!"

Arlyn, I agree that the method used in the" My Favorite No" video can be applied in a range of settings, including with English language learners.

Thank you for posting John Cleese's comments on the value of making mistakes. Cleese writes, "A positive attitude towards mistakes will allow them to be corrected rapidly when they occur. We all know that when we and our colleagues admit our mistakes, it’s comparatively easy to put them right. The problems come when mistakes are denied. If you don't acknowledge a mistake, you can’t correct it." He argues that fear of making mistakes often holds us back from contributing our ideas. I know that is often true for myself. I want to embrace Cleese's attitude about my own mistakes and pass this along to every adult learner I work with.

In what ways are members embracing your own and others' mistakes as opportunities?

Cheers, Susan

SME, Assessment

Hello, all,

This is a great theme for discussion, especially given the rigor of CCRS.  Too often we don't acknowledge that increased rigor for students means increased rigor for teachers.  And with this comes pressure, especially in the outcomes heavy environment in which many of us work.

I appreciate peoples' sharing of excellent resources.  I have enjoyed teachingchannel.org tremendously and love "My Favorite No".  And the Edutopia article, "Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes" by Maats and O'Brien, is another great offering:  http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-students-to-embrace-mistakes-hunter-maats-katie-obrien.

I just thought I'd share one more way of building a safe and creative community that is willing to try new things.  I opened a conversation thread similar to this on an ESL teacher wiki site I created for our community of practice cohorts of teachers.  I asked teachers to share their favorite quotes about mistakes, and the response was great.  I think we all need to feel it's okay and important (!) to make mistakes and to take them out of the category and definition of "failure".  As Edison said, "I haven't failed.  I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work."  (For other great quotes from Edison, see: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/t/thomas_a_edison.html).  This redefining of mistakes is tied closely to the grit/growth mindset/brin plasticity/perseverance and persistence habits of mind that are currently popular.  (And daily quotes, such as those by Edison and that can be received in your email inbox daily from http://www.thoughtful-mind.com/index.php are found to be helpful in developing a growth mindset, as well.)

Thanks again for a great topic with wonderful resources!



For the students, the part of the story I often tell is how Gordon the guided missile (though any example, not military will do), requires repeated correction from the main base (the instructor) before he hits his "mark".  But I have also used this text as a guide for myself as well.