Friday, April 2, 2010

to err is human

Michael Erard, author of Um shares an interesting take on how pervasive mistakes are in our everyday speech:

They [mistakes] occur on average once every ten words... If people say an average of 15,000 words each day, that's about 1,500 verbal blunders a day. Next time you say something, listen to yourself carefully. You st-st-stutter; you forget the words, you swotch the sounds (and when you type, you reverse the lttres - and prhps omt thm too). The bulk of these go unnoticed or brushed aside, but they're all fascinating, as much as for why they're ignored as why they're noticed.
The next time you are teaching public speaking or teaching students to write, remember that the absense of error should never be an objective. This means that every time you make a deduction in a student's grade for their mistakes, you are really teaching them that mistakes are something that should never happen - if they just tried hard enough - if they just prepared more - if they just studied more - if they just cared more - mistakes would never happen.

To sell life as an exercise in mistake-avoidance is not only impractical but it is wholly unhelpful and untruthful.

Mistakes are a part of our life - and we are better for it. This is why I proudly hang a sign outside of my classroom door that reads: Mistakes are our Friends.


  1. I'll be sure to point those statistics out to my students of German. I also try to encourage many mistakes (if they're not making mistakes, they're not pushing their limits), and also many, many questions.

    I'd be interested to see pictures of your classroom, if you wouldn't mind sharing them!

  2. I sang in a college choir where we were required to raise our hand briefly when we made a mistake during a song. (This was a tricky habit to break during concerts!) This taught us not to be afraid of making mistakes, and it let the conductor know that we knew we were erring. If he heard a mistake and no one raised a hand, he knew he needed to bring it to our attention. "This is a lab experiment," he told us, and sometimes he sent us to concert with a piece that he knew we didn't fully "have". Perfection was not his goal. Process was. We were the top choir, we LOVED singing for him, and we became incredibly skilled musicians under his guidance. The only time he came down on us was when he knew we weren't applying ourselves.

    I sang for him 20 years ago, but the life lesson is forever.

  3. When I make mistakes during class I almost always say... If only I got paid by the error. A couple of times I found myself saying... I'm just a walking error. One of the benefits of real-time (i.e. in person/old school) instruction is that students get to see that errors happen.

  4. Chris, I will take some photos of my classroom. To be honest, it's a bit of a mess.

  5. Everytime I take a math test and only a miss a few points or have a report card with mostly As and a few or one Bs or Cs I can't help but feel dissapointed somehow. I don't mind that I didn't get a one hundred, I don't really care for grades that much, but it makes me sad somehow how that even one tiny mistake would keep you from being at 100%, and of course every student would want to be at that, I mean 100% percent students more often than not get nothing but praise from the teachers and parents. Maybe it makes me sad how they expect someone to be so perfect down to the last mark, but I don't know, it just seems wrong to praise perfection like mistakes are the worst thing you could make.

  6. As a college math teacher, I tell students if they are not making mistakes, then they are not learning. They are uncomfortable with this approach, as they have been telling themselves for years that they are 'not good/dumb at math' when they make an error. If a student finds one of my mistakes (and there are several) a chocolate reward helps them to understand that error can be sweet!


Follow by Email