Can I, or may I, make mistakes?

When you can mess up asking to go to the bathroom, of course youth will fear making mistakes.

We have all been there, either ourselves or watching helplessly as it happens to a friend: word choice leaving you embarrassed for just asking a question. Sitting in class, you debate whether you can make it until the bell or if you need a hall pass. Impulsively, you raise your hand and ask, “Can I go to the bathroom?” Immediately, you see a familiar smirk flash across your English teacher’s face and you know too late you have made a tired misstep. Your teacher quickly responds with, “I don’t know, CAN you go to the bathroom?” You mutter, “I meant ‘May I’”, grab the pass and scurry out of the room.

As innovative teaching and learning moves towards non-prescribed, experiential methods, a common barrier with young people is an aversion to making mistakes, which are essential to creative processes. Of course, youth will fear making mistakes when they can mess up asking to go to the bathroom. This classic grade school scolding is indicative of learning environments where mistakes are heavily penalized. Brainstorming lists of ideas can get bogged down by correct spelling or sketching can come to a halt until each little drawing is perfect.

Some solutions can be found in the Michigan State University Extension article, “It’s OK to be wrong,” but ultimately it goes beyond tips and alternations to educational approaches. Addressing all the little “correctness” moments throughout your day, modeling risk-taking and reacting positively to mistakes can lead to shifts that support innovation. Of course, this does not mean that technical knowledge and proper grammar should be thrown by the wayside. Rather, these things need to make room for free-flowing processes and can always be interjected at natural points in interactions and revisions of drafts, prototypes and experiences. When working to create positive, supportive environments for young people, an overemphasis on correctness automatically puts up unnecessary barriers that restrict relationships and imped more critical developmental outcomes.

At the root of the “Can I/May I,” grammatical correction is whether you are asking about your own ability or asking for permission. Ironically, if we continue to engrain perfection into young people, making mistakes slowly becomes more of a “can I” than a “may I” question.

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