“Trial and error” – try things out, make mistakes, do better. That’s actually how it always works when we humans want to learn something properly: with feeling and understanding. But we adults often get in the way of children. We spoke with educational researcher Gerd Gigerenzer about the right error culture and why errors can motivate children rather than slow them down.
Children become wiser from mistakes. They need to be allowed to make mistakes and understand them. We adults should be careful not to give away too much of our “this is how it’s done” and “that’s how it’s done” views. That’s what Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer, director emeritus at 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 the insights we adults need to be aware of in order to support our children.
#1 Mistakes are often also a good thing
The word “mistake” always has a negative connotation. But there are also “good” mistakes that are important for lasting learning. We should be more aware of this fact, says Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer. “An example: the child learns the language, but it chafes at the irregular activity words. For example, it says ‘I thought’ instead of ‘I thought.’ That’s a good mistake. It shows that he can use the rule – as in ‘I made’. By making mistakes with the much smaller number of irregular verbs, it then realizes the exceptions to the rule.”
#2 Mistakes are an opportunity for further development
Handling a mistake correctly is absolutely critical. We should start to see mistakes not as a stupidity, but as an opportunity for further development and learning. Because in this way, we often realize 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 this if we teach them that mistakes are not allowed to be made. So mistakes should never go unused, says Gerd Gigerenzer: “We scientists design our research so that we can learn from mistakes. We try new things in order to make good mistakes.”
#3 There is not always just THE one solution to a problem
A typical scene at school: a teacher asks the children for a solution to a problem. Some ideas come, but none is “the right solution.” Therefore, they are ignored until one child says the expected answer. The problem is, if the student with the wrong or not quite right answer is ignored, he or she doesn’t learn anything. Scenes like this often play out at home as well. In this way, opportunities to practice judgment and discovery are lost.
Gerd Gigerenzer also warns against this: “We still teach too much according to the pattern of telling children this is right, that is wrong, there is exactly one solution. But that is usually not the case. We give them more to take with them when we say: Look, here’s a problem, you can now develop solutions. We should also create more of a forum in school for producing ideas, defending them, and also giving up arguments when they’re wrong.”
#4 Children should have time to solve problems themselves.
We adults tend to quickly become “know-it-alls” due to our large head start in lived experience. This often starts when our children make their first attempts at playing. “Look, the ball has to go in the round hole, the dice in the square one!” Later it continues. Something doesn’t work out for the child on the first try, and he or she is frustrated. As parents, we sometimes intervene hastily to help the child make progress.
But in reality, we are denying him an important experience. That it sometimes takes several attempts before something succeeds and that the child is perfectly capable of coming up with the solution to a problem on its own, even if it may take longer. It is therefore important that we take a step back and allow the child to have its own experiences, including mistakes and frustration. Once the child has found out for itself how something works, the joy is all the greater, and the learning effect is even greater.
#5 Mistakes foster a sense of discovery
By letting our children have their own experiences, they acquire important skills. Finding their own ways through mistakes and working out solutions are skills that will always benefit them later in life. In addition, learning with the self-discovery effect strengthens the personality.
This feeling of being allowed to dare to do something without constantly being led astray by small and tiny corrections is very valuable for children. It is certainly 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 if a lot can go wrong in the process. And often their own mistakes are a helper in the process. Without it, they often wouldn’t have made any progress at all. Then, in the end, their own sense of discovery, the foundation of lifelong learning, triumphs.
#6 We should give children more responsibility
Not only children mature, but mothers and fathers also need to develop: In terms of how much they trust their children to do. Early on, we should start letting go more and more in some ways. “If we protect our children too much from any risk, the children pay a price for it,” warns Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer. “A typical example is the increase in allergies because of fear of even small amounts of dirt. Overall, we give children and young people too little credit. We should give them increasing responsibility as they get older. In the process, they will make mistakes and can learn from them.”
Adolescence in particular is a time when young people make quick decisions that may not be particularly well thought out. But that’s part of life; after all, we’ve all been at that particular age. The typical recklessness during this time often leads parents to think their children don’t have as much sense of responsibility. But: “It is also a mistake to withhold responsibility from young people who would already be ready to take it on. They deserve this chance to mature,” says Gerd Gigerenzer.
#7 Parents and teachers should be mindful of mistakes
We must learn to put the knowledge advantage that we have as adults with more life experience behind children who are just learning and discovering, and accept that they make “good” and “bad” mistakes and thus gain experience. Of course, no one should burst into praise when a child insists that 2 + 2 = 5, however, at that moment you can ask them to prove their mathematical discovery to make, say, 5 apples out of 2 and 2 apples.
There are many teachers who already make their lessons “error friendly” and let their students try more on their own. They take errors and ask themselves if there is an idea of their own in them. We parents can do the same by being mindful of error. This takes courage, because even a “wrong” climbing technique on the playground or clumsy trial and error on the bike are part of it – the whole person is always learning. But it’s worth it. Because the future needs courageous people who think outside the box, and our children need a genuine joy in learning.