Many people learn from a young age that making mistakes feels terrible and can be embarrassing. That lesson often gets learned in school. But in her TED Talk, Kathryn Schulz says those terrible feelings come from realizing wrongness, not the feeling of actually being wrong. Because often, people are wrong for a while before they realize it, and in that intervening time, being wrong feels eerily like being right.

In education there’s a lot of talk about valuable failure, the necessity of mistakes for learning and celebrating the learning that comes out of being wrong. And while teachers, parents and students may understand that concept in the abstract, in the moment, they still don’t want to be wrong. To protect ourselves from ever being wrong, we try to be perfect, but inevitably fail, making things worse. Schulz points out that nothing ever turns out as we expect, and that’s a core part of being human.

“When it comes to our stories, we love being wrong,” Schulz said. “Our stories are like this because our lives are like this. We think one thing is going to happen and something else happens instead.”

She contends that to truly rediscover the wonder of this world, we need to step outside the “tiny, terrifying space of rightness” and admit we might be wrong. Because once we can do that, we can see the whole big universe of information out there that we don’t know. She wrote a book about the topic, “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.”

  • Christine Lowry

    Dr. Montessori spoke and taught on the absolute need for “transformation” of the adult to be able to really understand and respect the child. Her encouragement for “self-reflective” teaching includes this ability to see the wonder of the world, and share it with children, with a willingness to admit we might be wrong as a way to discover what might be more right.

  • Adam Buchbinder

    I love this difference between being being wrong and realizing we are wrong. Until we begin to think about this paradigm at the level of the individual and at the beginning of life, we will continue to reward perfection and deter risk taking. But as I have commented in previous pieces, the idea of failure is viewed very differently in the professional world. To celebrate failure is also dependent on one’s circumstance in life. It’s easy for a leading entrepreneur to embrace failure but much different for a young person of color sitting in prison.

  • As teachers, the trick for us is to turn each of these moments–each of these mistakes and failures–into a beginning and a learning opportunity, and cultivate that same perspective in our students’ minds as well. When we speak scientifically the moment of failure, the brain is primed to absorb the information needed to perform the task successfully the next time around. In short, when we have the perspective that we can learn from our mistakes, parts of the frontal lobe are engaged when we make errors and that helps draw attention to those errors.

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