We often hear teacher-led or student-led when describing classrooms, mistakes are an essential characteristic of learning. We don’t simply walk into learning. Even when someone guides us there, we typically have to make a mistake before it sinks in. As a teacher, I know that my students will make mistakes, and lots of them. Therefore, if I am not teaching them how to respond to a mistake, then I am not teaching.
This article summarizes the importance of mistakes in learning. Boiled down, it emphasizes the point that there are two ways to respond to a mistake – as a wake up call, or a shut down mechanism. If I view my action as a mistake, I can use it as wake up call, and correct the action for future improvement. If I view the mistake as a signal that I am the problem, then the negative feedback will overwhelm me and trigger the shut down.
Teachers see these both in the classroom, but I would contend that the latter shut down method is unfortunately more common. The truth is that we, teachers, are a part of this problem. We need to improve our ability to react to mistakes with a positive, encouraging attitude, directing students toward the growth that should result from a mistake. Here are 5 ways you can do this in your classroom.
1. “My favorite No” warmup exercise. This is from 8th grade math teacher Leah Alcala. What I love about this method is that it is cheap, easy and spins a typical negative, getting a math problem wrong, into a positive. Please watch the video (it’s well worth the 5 minutes), but if you don’t have time, here is a brief description. The teacher gives students a math problem, an index card, and time to solve. After a few minutes, she quickly browses through their work and chooses one, her favorite incorrect answer. She mentions that this exercise let’s the students know that the problem will have a mistake (often a common one), but also that she saw something positive in that mistake. This helps students view their mistake as an opportunity for growth. The teacher is happy that they made it, because it gave everyone the chance to learn. She uses language deliberately to guide her students toward seeing mistakes as learning opportunities.
2. Give them the research – I believe that kids are more capable of understanding challenging information than most people give them credit for. In teaching third and fifth grade, I loved telling my students about research that I had been reading, like how a specific study proved something about how we think. Weeks or months later, students would find a connection back to that study, noticing how they saw the results of the study in real life. Jo Boaler is doing amazing work on the importance of positive math mindsets. Youcubed is a site that hosts videos and articles about math and brain science, as well as tasks that give students math experiences to develop a growth mindset. This video breaks down the information for students (and teachers), particularly it’s importance with math (the part about mistakes starts at 3:25).
3. Go outside with your students. Our school is built in a wooded area and our grounds crew just cleared out a lot of the invasive bushes that had taken over the woods. I took a walk through the other day, and I was transported back to my childhood, exploring what seemed like undiscovered places. I imagined all the amazing lessons my students and I could learn walking there together. Here’s the catch. I was also incredibly nervous. I can almost guarantee that something would go wrong on that walk, whether it would be a simple scratch or finding some undesirable wildlife. I can also tell you that a lot more synapses were firing in my brain as I worried about those mistakes than usual. It is as if this Pirate-like adventure through the woods was peaking my brain for learning. Whether your school is in the woods or in a city, finding places to explore will spark wonder and lead to unforeseen mistakes that can lead to unforeseen learning.
4. Make mistakes. If you’re like me, just do your normal thing, rush your work, misspell words, miscalculate an answer, and then catch yourself and correct them. If you’re a perfectionist, I can think of two strategies. Pretend you put the mistakes there on purpose when the kids catch it, or plan it out in advance. If you’re planning, think of a mistake students might make on the assignment and then execute that mistake perfectly. Let the students catch it and then learn from your mistakes.
5. Apologize sincerely. Like I said above, I make mistakes all the time in my classroom. When it’s a spelling error, I correct it. There are other times, however, that I say the wrong thing, I say the right thing the wrong way, or I redirect the wrong kid for misbehavior. The most important thing I can do is apologize. Make sure it’s not a quick throw away apology. Don’t allow yourself the “I’m sorry, but…” statement. I wouldn’t accept that from my students and I can’t accept it from myself. Show your students what it means to apologize. Pause the lesson to make sure that the class can see what it looks like and sounds like, and that the individual student knows you are being sincere. You should also check in with them later to make sure they know you are still thinking about them.
One thing that I frequently tell my students is, “I’m sorry isn’t always enough.” Actions speak louder than words and the teacher has to show their honesty with actions as much as you want your student to when they make a mistake. Fortunately, I have found that students are incredibly forgiving of their teacher. Unfortunately, they are often more forgiving of their teacher than their classmates. Your apology and their acceptance can set a great example for later conflicts in your classroom. Don’t let that moment pass by. It will pay off later.
I am sure that there are many more ways to use mistakes in the classroom to help your students learn. I’m excited to hear how other teachers have reframed mistakes to develop a growth mindset and ability to rebound for their students.