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Using Mistakes in the Learning Process

Using Mistakes in the Learning Process

12 April, 2016

Let’s admit, no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes in their life.

Finding Value in Error

Teachers, like doctors, are perceived to be mistake free. Administrators, parents, and even other teachers judge them very negatively for making mistakes. Yet when a teacher has strong relationships with another teacher or two, they share their problems freely, ask for and give advice, and learn from each other. This also happens in schools where mentor teachers share ideas with new teachers.

What would happen if those pairs or threesomes expanded to involve a small group of teachers, plus administrators, counselors, or even whole departments or entire school faculties? Some schools have built the trust necessary for such discussions. This concept could grow to include a wider number of schools, maybe even become a regular professional procedure for all teachers. What would you think of this idea? Is it feasible? Worthwhile? Beneficial? A significant side effect of discussing mistakes might be to change the perception of it, not only for teachers, but for students as well. When teachers learn from their mistakes, they might be more enthusiastic to let students learn from theirs.

Changing beliefs about students’ mistakes is the second way that it can enhance learning. In the vast majority of classrooms, mistakes are deemed as poor performance. It lowers grades. Students are encouraged both formally and informally not to make it.

This belief system is absurd. The bigger the mistake, the more is learned. People learn from their success, also, but not nearly as much.

Ways to Teach With Mistakes

The challenge for students is not that they make mistakes. The real issue is that teachers don’t use those to enable and promote learning. Because shame is presently attached to mistakes, students are scared to take chances, explore, and think for themselves. As a clear example of how damaging this view can be, look at the makeup of most gifted and talented programs. In far too many schools, the students in these classes are not the most creative risk takers or unique thinkers. They are the students who scored the highest on standardized tests. Therefore, we label as gifted or talented the students who make the least mistakes. It’s a mistake to think of those as something negative. When mistakes become learning opportunities, everything changes. Students take more risks, think in new ways, cheat less, and answer mysteries that had previously eluded them.

Here are some ideas that can be done in the classroom to change this defeating way of thinking, including both formal and informal evaluation processes:

  1. Stop marking errors on tests and papers without explaining why they’re wrong. Provide enough explanation to help your student understand what went wrong and how to fix it. A big red X is no enough.
  2. Offer students an opportunity to correct their mistakes and redo their work. This enables mistakes to become learning opportunities.
  3. Improvement must become a significant factor in the evaluation process. The more a student improves, the higher his or her grade. Nothing shows learning from mistakes more than improvement.
  4. When a student makes a mistake in a class discussion, don’t say things like, “No, wrong, can anyone help him?” Don’t just call on someone else without further comment but rather, ask the student, “Why do you think so? Can you give an example? If you could ask yourself a question about your answer, what would it be?”
  5. It is suggested to start with what is right. If a teacher asks, “Who was the first president of the United States?” and a student answers, “Barack Obama,” instead of saying, “You’re wrong,” try saying, “Barack Obama is a president, you’re right about that. However, he wasn’t the first. Let’s go further back in history.” Even silly answers can be responded to in this way.
  6. If a student needs help with an answer, let him or her select a classmate to help. Call the helper something like a “personal consultant.”
  7. Instead of (or at least in addition to) walls filled with students’ accomplishments, have a wall where students can brag about their biggest mistakes and what they learned from them.
  8. Have biweekly class meetings where students share a mistake they made, what happened after, and what they learned.
  9. Be sure to inform the class about your own mistakes, especially if they are funny, and what you learned from them.

It wonderful to see a sign on a school entrance that says, “Everyone who enters here will learn.” Learning means not having fear to examine mistakes that teachers make and encouraging students to think in ways that might produce mistakes. Utilize all these mistakes to learn from, to improve, and to feel good about individual progress.