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Learning from Mistakes – Bloopers, Oops, & Outtakes

I was cruising around some training and coaching websites and noticed Diana Frances’ link to UGLY PHOTOS. I really did “LOL” as I browsed her portraits laden with half-closed eyes and silly expressions—shots that normally get trashed, not posted. While most of us completely avoid showing our blemishes, we also jump at the opportunity to view others’ “oops, outtakes, and bloopers”!  As trainers, I think we have an untapped opportunity here; an opportunity to use people’s natural urge to witness others’ foibles to enhance learning and retention. Read on to explore the ins and outs of mistakes and mishaps or skip to the bottom of the article for a bunch of strategies for learning from mistakes and making wrong answers a wonderfully fun and effective learning experience.

Our Weakness for Negative News

As the media knows well, people are more drawn to negative news—news of horror, tragedy, mistakes, and accidents—than positive. In fact, scientific studies find that negative news creates a stronger psychophysiological reaction. That is, we react more strongly to negative than positive information. We also spread that bad news more quickly than good news.

Evolution may explain some of this “negativity bias.” When a storm is coming, for example, survival could depend on whether we ignore or heed negative news. However, as humans, our proclivity for negative news isn’t just a matter of physical safety. Case in point: our two Trainers Warehouse emails that received the highest-ever open-rates were titled, “Oops we messed up!” and “Some sad news to share.”

The Happy Facade

Despite our appetite for consuming negative news, we’re very quick to beat ourselves up for our own mistakes. Instead of sharing our daily struggles, we plaster our happiest-ever photos on Facebook; amazing parties, fabulous children, and wonderful vacations. Friends and family scroll through the feed, with alternating feelings of good wishes and envy.

It’s no wonder psychologists have faulted Facebook and other social media platforms for the increased teen suicide rates. Already, we chastise ourselves if we fall short of expectations. The more we see everyone around us in their perfect worlds, the more we strive for perfection in ourselves and feel bad when our lives don’t measure up.

Learning from Bloopers – Making Wrong into Right

In a handful of situations, doing things wrong and making mistakes, becomes the key to success.

  • Improv and Comedy: in one of my clowning improv workshops, we had to grab a prop and use it in the silliest way we could imagine. The more “wrong” the application, the funnier it was.
  • Sarcasm: in other attempts at humor, people say the opposite of what’s true, with the hope of making it funny, or making someone feel silly.
  • Creative brainstorming: creativity experts encourage brainstormers to share the wackiest ideas possible. Their hope is that one of these out-of-the-box bad ideas will spur another good idea. [NOTE: Brainstormers aren’t supposed to call anything a “bad idea,” but why not? Maybe the worse it is, the better it is.]
  • Clowning: it’s funny when a clown trips, falls, accidentally gets hit, or loses his pants. When it happens to a clown, we’re encouraged to laugh. But if the same thing happens to a “real person,” even if they don’t get hurt, we’re supposed to pretend it’s not funny.

Welcoming Mistakes in the Classroom

Carol Dweck’s theories about growth mindsets and learning from mistakes, have infiltrated the education world. Still, teachers struggle to design learning experiences so that mistakes are not embarrassing, and errors are more humorful than hurtful. Can we encourage and reward students for incorrect answers? Could well-crafted games use lots of “wrong” answers to reinforce right answers? I put the question to our training community, got tons of sage suggestions, and put my own creativity to work. Below, you’ll find a mix of tried-and-true facilitation tips and a bunch of new game frameworks that might put a fresh spin on your teaching and training:

Set a Tone that Values Vulnerability

  • Value mistakes over easy wins: Encourage participation and diversity perspective rather than simply rewarding absolute answers. Remind your groups that mistakes and challenges shape you just as much (if not more) than easy wins and quick successes. Make it okay to be right sometimes and wrong sometimes. ~ Chanelle Carver
  • Create risk-friendly environments through skillful facilitation: Creating an environment in which participants choose to engage and take risks, is quite complex. Many dedicate their entire careers to honing their facilitation skills – non-verbal communication, listening, observing, questioning, and authentically valuing every contribution. Their effort pays off. During well-facilitated experiences, the trust in the room becomes palpable, and underpins people’s willingness to risk a “wrong answer.” ~ Chris Halward
  • Reward willingness to be vulnerable: Without validating wrong answers, teachers can support students’ willingness to be vulnerable by always saying “thank you for sharing,” regardless of whether an answer is correct. In addition, teachers can engage students in a discussion by saying “tell us why you think that,” “please share your thinking,” or “show us why you think that.” ~ Jennifer Bieszczad
  • Establish a culture of acceptance: Promote an all-answers-are-welcome policy. From the start, establish classroom norms and ground rules. Get groups to commit to a “no answers are wrong” culture, either by vote or written agreement.  ~ Colin Preece

Ask Open Questions

  • Steer clear of right/wrong questions:  To the extent you can, ask questions that do not have a right or wrong answer. Rather, develop questions that require critical thought. After all, in many instances, “right” and “wrong” is subjective.” ~ Chanelle Carver
  • Something different, please: Ask your group, “how can we say that differently?” This invites participants to open up and gives them permission to say anything at all – not a right answer or a better answer – just a different answer.” ~ Derek Good

Right Wrong Answer BuzzersStrategies & Training Games to Make it Fun

  • Nobody knows! In the style of the game Balderdash (or Fictionary), ask a question that you expect nobody will know. Ask each player to make up an answer (or word definition). Collect all the answers and mix them in with the one correct answer. Have everyone vote on the answer they believe to be correct. Award points for both correct guesses AND made-up answers that are guessed by another player. Design the exercise to encourage laughter and release fears about making mistakes.
  • Score Keeper. Make score-keeping fun. Devise scoring systems that encourage people to share many answers, and reward both top and/or bottom scorers.
    • Best explained answer: Whether an answer is right or wrong, acknowledge the best “argument” or the “best articulated” answer.
    • Most creative wrong answer: In the circus, the motto was “make it big.” If you’re gonna mess up, do it in a big way! In keeping with the “make it big” philosophy, encourage participants to take a risk and share a thought that has the most chance of being “way off.”
    • Group scoring: To further remove emotion and add to the fun, have the whole group score or weigh each answer so you end up with a collective agreement on prioritizing ideas/right answers.
  • “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”: I often listen to the NPR radio program called, “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” On their weekly news quiz, they make it fun to have right AND wrong answers. They always want to see their players be successful, so they set them up to win. What can we learn from this popular radio broadcast?
    • Lots of funny answers: Share multiple possible answers that are so hilarious that choosing any option is fun/funny.
    • Close-enough answers: On the show, they sometimes discuss whether points should be awarded – it’s not always up to the host/facilitator.
    • 2-out-of-3 Wins – you don’t have to answer every question correctly to be a winner, you can answer 2-out-of-3 or even 1-out-of-3 to “win.”
    • Give Plentiful Hints – When players are stumped, they’re invited to ask for a hint without shame or penalty.
  • Teamwork: It’s so much more fun to be wrong as a group than as an individual. As a group, you can bond over your success and failure, and laugh at it together. Working in groups, you can either:
    • Have teams agree on a single answer to submit
    • Have teams write a handful of different answers on a set of dry-erase answer boards, allocating the number of points they want to give to each guess.
  • Rounds of Applause and Standing Ovations: Applaud anyone who answers – right or wrong – to validate the attempt to come up with a reply.
  • Two Wrongs and a Right: This is a spin-off on both “Two Truths and a Lie” and “Two Wrongs don’t make a right.” Give participants a chance to answer a question and come up with two wrong answers and one right answer. Involve the group in a discussion of all three answers. Even if none of the three answers is correct, it opens a discussion about multiple ideas and perspectives.
  • 4 Balls / 3 Strikes: To really explore a new topic or questions, try this technique (feel free to adapt it to your needs):
    • First person (or team) to answer HAS TO say something wrong?
    • Second person (or team) to answer must explain WHY it might be wrong
    • Third person (or team) to answer offer another WRONG answer
    • Fourth person (or team) to answer must EXPLAIN why the answer is incorrect and how to think about a correct answer
    • RULES: if a “right answer” is shared in responses #1, #2, or #3, that player or team gets a STRIKE for each violation. Can they get to response #4 without a strikeout?
  • Wrong answers only:
    • Guess the wrong answer: offer multiple-choice questions, in which all the answers are correct except for one. Players must identify the one wrong answer. When players are under time pressure, this can get really silly. Even if you answer a multitude of questions in rapid succession, it can be hard to keep giving wrong answers.
    • In the Wrongify style, For each round, one person reads the questions aloud to the player. The player answering must give a wrong-but-related answer to score a point.
    • Wrong Answer Buzzers: Teachers and trainers typically shy away from using the Right-Wrong Buzzers or Me First Buzzer’s Most-Wrong-Answers When used “right,” Wrong-Answer games just might transform your thinking about how to create fun, laughter, and learning in educational settings.

Anticipating Challenge Can Improve Learning

Frederique Autin, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Poitiers in Poitiers, France conducted a study that was published online in APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. In three separate experiments involving over 100 French sixth graders, one group was told that learning is difficult and failure is common, but practice will help, just like learning how to ride a bicycle. The other test groups did not receive this message.

In each of the three tests, the children who were told that learning is difficult scored higher than the other groups. Read the complete article in ScienceDaily (Mar. 12, 2012).

Opportunities to Share your Own Bloopers

The challenge for teachers and trainers is to transform the oops, outtakes, and bloopers into funny, memorable learning experiences. Although these ideas haven’t all been tested in the classroom, I hope you’ll give some a try and share both your successes and disasters!

Finally, step out on a limb and share your own vulnerabilities with your trainees. Sometimes there’s no better way to encourage vulnerability than by sharing your own!

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