Tuesday, February 24, 2015


The first time I tried to knit an entire scarf I messed up. Quite comically. Fortunately, my mistakes helped me to learn.

Here’s what happened:

One of the first steps of knitting is to learn how to cast stitches onto the needle. It took me more than a few tries to learn to cast on, but eventually I got it. 

“Awesome!” I thought to myself, “FINALLY. I've got it!”. 

In the midst of my excitement, I got slightly ahead of myself and cast approximately thirty-five stitches onto a tiny needle.

Mistake Number 1.

Be sure to find a good estimation of how many stitches to cast on before you begin.

I did not realize that the knit stitches would  “grow” as I knitted along the needle. Soon after casting on so many stitches, I observed that the knitting became very difficult. It seemed that the needles were overloaded by WAY too many stitches. I thought about this for maybe a moment, but continued to knit away, revelling in the observation that I was actually knitting. Or so it seemed...

Mistake Number 2.

If something seems off about your project...Stop. Look at your stitches and ask yourself, "Does this look right?". Keep in mind that you (or a friend) are probably planning to wear the finished project.

I continued with the scarf, and I began to have a hard time transferring stitches from one needle to the other. As I mentioned before, I was knitting too tightly and too closely to the top of the needles, which caused the stitches to catch on the ends of the needles.

Mistake Number 3.

Remember to knit your stitches below the top of the needle. If you knit too closely to the top of the needle, where the point is, the knots will be too small. The top of the needle is smaller than the mid-shaft section of the needle. I made the mistake of knitting too close to the top and ended up with knitted stitches that were far too small in diameter. When I tried to move the stitches down the needle, they got stuck.

As I sat there, looking at my mistakes, I tried to figure out how they had happened and why the knots looked strange. I could see that my work had gotten slightly better as I progressed through rows. I started to pull out some of the stitches, working back to a row that made more sense. In such reflection, I began to understand how I might fix the mistakes.

As you can imagine, the scarf I produced from this naive knitting project was not much of a scarf at all. Instead, it was a collection of different sized stitches with little bits of wool sticking out. By the time I got to the end of the skein, I had a project I was not happy with. It was not pretty, or cute, or trendy. It was just...well...a mess. Nevertheless, I have found these mistakes to be invaluable to my progress as a knitter.

One key benefit to the “unknitting” practice has been the development of the ability to differentiate knits from purls. I learned more about the structure of the knot as I "unknitted" and "unpurled" Additionally, I have found the process of remaking a piece to be quite rewarding, for the advancement in skill level the second time around is both observable and tangible.  

These observations, along with previous research, lead us to question the role of mistakes in education, and further, the cognitive benefits of “messing up”.

The importance of mistake-making is often present in conversation about the learning process. In this blog post, New York Times journalist Alina Tugend discusses the role error making in school classrooms, arguing that students can benefit from embracing such mistakes. If students are afraid of mistakes,” she writes, “then they're afraid of trying something new, of being creative, of thinking in a different way.”  Tugend grounds her ideas in the empirical work of Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Results from Dweck’s research suggest that student mindset is tied to the acceptance of mistake-making as part of the learning process.

This work is motivating, for it seems that if I am open to inevitable mistakes and the learning that can result from subsequent correction, it is likely that errors will have a positive function in my learning process.

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