Serif in Education

Making mistakes is the best way to learn

The team at Serif like to keep up-to-date with what real teachers are saying and doing about the school curriculum as a whole, but especially about the Computing curriculum.

One interesting thing we found recently was a presentation from a teacher called Matt Britland, Director of ICT at LadyEleanorHollisSchool in Surrey. Called ‘A guide to delivering creative Computing lessons’, it was published back in 2013, but made a very good point about allowing children to make mistakes.

As a small child, mistakes are key to helping us grow and evolve – so much so that not only are they encouraged, but they are applauded! We might fall when attempting to walk, but our parents clap and cheer at our efforts, giving us the courage to pull ourselves up and try again. As we enter our first years of school, we are presented with all sorts of toys and games that epitomise imagination, presenting endless opportunities for children and delivering learning outcomes in a fun way without boundaries. Creative, free-flowing and non prescriptive play is encouraged, promoting team work, co-operation, language development, reasoning and understanding.

As we enter secondary school, more emphasis is put on finding the right answers, and not the wrong ones. Of course, that is so we can pass our exams, which will carry us through to college or a successful life of work. However we must not, as a consequence, limit a child’s creativity, or turn the practice of making a mistake from a positive, into a negative. Creativity is what keeps us exploring, failing and succeeding. As Albert Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

In Matt Britland’s presentation, he touches on common programming mistakes. Two of the most common, he says, are ‘being afraid’ and ‘getting frustrated’.  Many older children have grown to fear making mistakes. But he asks teachers to encourage children to keep trying, to make mistakes and then ask them to correct them, and to explore using different tools that they haven’t tried before and to just see what happens.

Perhaps you could give students some code and ask them to spot the mistakes? Or ask students to ‘proof’ each others work. Programming can be black and white (an algorithm will either work and do its intended job, or not work, and then it needs to be corrected) however creativity can be incorporated by drawing Sprites in DrawPlus and then exporting them into a program like Scratch. Other parts of the Computing curriculum are more open to interpretation. Building a website, for example, is a much more creative process and children have the opportunity to play around with different tools and features, without being right or wrong.

Making mistakes and testing things out isn’t something that we do just as a small child. Some of the best inventions have taken years to come to market:

Autonomous Cars

Self-driving cars have been in experimentation since the 1920s with trials ongoing since the ‘50s, and still in testing phases now! The CarnegieMellonUniversity’s Navlab released the first truly autonomous car in 1984 and since then big manufacturers including Mercedes-Benz, Bosch and Toyota have all developed working prototype vehicles that are not yet available or ready for public use.

Now, in 2015, the UK Government have launched public trials of a driverless pod called the LUTZ Pathfinder in Milton Keynes, but it is expected that this will be classed as a trial for a good year or longer before being rolled out elsewhere.

Apple iPhone

The original iPhone was launched in 2007 but Steve Jobs claimed at that time that it had been five years in development, with initial work starting in January 2002 as the Purple 1 Project. The domain “” had been reserved by Apple as far back as 1999! Some users even believe work started on the iPhone as early as 1987 with the launch of the Apple Newton platform, which Apple classed as a “complete reinvention of personal computing”.

Ultimately, our children have the rest of their lives to face real demands, so why not create a classroom environment where mistakes are not punished, but encouraged? I’ll finish with another quote, from the legend himself, Michael Jordan:

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.”