By Teachers, For Teachers
Just because you read a book about swimming doesn’t mean you’re ready to jump into the ocean. Real learning happens through experience. And experience comes from doing it – whatever “It” is – wrong.
When students learn in our classroom, we can unwittingly impede their learning by making our classroom a “Mistake-free” zone. We may use classroom management to teach students a math principle, a writing technique, or a piece of science content. And then we assess, marking wrong everything they didn’t immediately master. As one teacher put it, we can make our students “Victims of excellence.”
Mistakes – simple trial and error – are an essential part of the learning process. Just reflect on how you learned how to tie your shoes, catch a baseball, or read a clock. No one masters these the first time they’re introduced to them. Learning much more complex tasks – like multiplication, essay writing, or reading – takes a long time and many, many mistakes along the way.
There may be times when we expect perfection from our students, and their failure to produce it results in loss of points, low grades, and frustrating experiences. While we should set a high standard for what our students are able to achieve, we should also use classroom management to allow room for students to experiment with new topics and to make plenty of mistakes along the way. It’s how we help to facilitate mistakes – not eliminate them – that will ultimately serve our students well and help them achieve their goals.
At the risk of sounding obvious, your first rule for facilitating mistakes in the classroom is to allow them to happen in the first place. We don’t want to jump all over our students’ mistakes or make them feel like mistakes should never happen. Mistakes should absolutely happen – they’re the natural result of somebody making an attempt. Mistakes are proof that they’re trying.
Be overt with your students. Let them know when they should practice, experiment, and experience mistakes and failure. Also let them know what your reasonable timeline is for them improving upon or mastery certain content. Mistakes don’t have to be penalized – they could also be praised. Mistakes open upon the opportunity to have a legitimate discussion about their understanding and progress.
Let your students know that mistakes are OK, but giving up isn’t. Let them know that mistakes are rewarded with feedback and improvement, not penalized with missed points and lowered grades. Let your students know that in your classroom, mistakes are OK as long as they are willing to learn as they go.
As you facilitate mistakes, be sure to point out to students the importance of their process, not just their results. Genuine improvement comes from students recognizing that the actions they put into something direct affect the outcome. If they quickly and haphazardly throw together their work, it will look like it was carelessly completed. If they put time and attention into what they do, careful to draw upon their training, then their output is much more likely to be a quality product that demonstrates true learning.
As their instructor, make sure that your emphasis is not strictly on the final product. This will draw students’ attention to the finished work and the assessment it receives, but not the steps leading up to that point. Instead, train students to put their attention toward their process. For example, when teaching students about writing, emphasize the steps that lead to the final draft, such as brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and editing. If students dutifully follow the process, then they are worthy of praise regardless of how effective their final draft ends up being.
You don’t have to focus on perfection or to what degree student work matches your standard. While these are good goals, you can facilitate mistakes and learning in your classroom better when students are cognitive of the effort and process leading up to that final product. Research related to the growth mindset has shown that when students are praised for their efforts – such as “Great job following our process!” or “You really paid attention to detail as you worked” – students are far more likely to continue to put forth effort and believe their skills are truly something that can grow.
Mindsetworks.com summarizes this by saying, “Studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset. When students have a growth mindset, they take on challenges and learn from them, therefore increasing their abilities and achievement.”
Too often students receive a grade on their work … and then just throw it away. On to the next task! But if students are genuinely going to grow in their skills and knowledge, building in time for reflecting on their previous task is essential. Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick write in their book “Learning and Leading through Habits of Mind” that, “Reflection has many facets. For example, reflecting on work enhances its meaning. Reflecting on experiences encourages insight and complex learning. We foster our own growth when we control our learning, so some reflection is best done alone. Reflection is also enhanced, however, when we ponder our learning with others.”
In life, reflecting on our experiences and behaviors helps us prepare for the “Next time” we will encounter similar scenarios. This reflection helps us answer two essential questions: “How did I do on this task?” and “What can I do to improve my performance on it next time?” That way, when students encounter a similar academic task again, they are better mentally equipped to build off of previous performances rather than just repeat their mistakes.
When students make mistakes or perform less-than-adequate on a given task, we can remind students these types of mistakes or failures are OK … as long as they learn from them. For example, if students are giving a speech in front of their classmates for the first time, it’s important for them to not just receive a grade and feedback on their speech, but to sincerely answer questions themselves about their experience. They might answer questions like, “Did I feel nervous?” “How much did I practice beforehand?” “What surprised me about giving my speech?” “How would I rate my eye contact?” and “What would I do to prepare even better for my next speech?”
Facilitating this kind of reflection shows students that however they performed on a task is fine, but the goal is to continually improve. It is only by acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of one’s performance that one can appropriately make adjustments and strengthen their abilities. Imagine a golfer who swings exactly the same way every stroke and slices the ball into the weeds – wouldn’t they need to figure out what they’re doing wrong and adjust? The same is true with academic tasks. Instead of just slicing into the weeds, they need to assess what’s happening and make appropriate adjustments.
But remind students that it’s about slowly and steadily working towards mastery. They wouldn’t be able to improve their work if they didn’t make mistakes in the first place!
Overall, remember how much you have learned in life because you didn’t get it right the first time. How did you respond to your mistakes and failures? How did others respond to you? Attempting to make something perfect every time can be more of a hindrance than an inspiration. As teacher Bruce Ballenger put it in his essay “The Importance of Writing Badly,” “When I give my students permission to write badly, to suspend their compulsive need to find the ‘perfect way of saying it,' often something miraculous happens: words that used to trickle forth come gushing to the page. The students quickly find their voices again, and even more important, they are surprised by what they have to say. They can worry later about fixing awkward sentences. First they need to make a mess.”
Let’s give our students permission to make a mess, to commit errors, make mistakes, and fall short of goals. Then let’s show them that this is OK, normal, and even encouraged as long as we continually think about where we’re at, commit to the ongoing process of learning, and understand the powerful impacting making mistakes can truly have.
How do you help to facilitate mistakes in the classroom? Share your thoughts and ideas with our community of teachers by leaving a comment below!
Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.