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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

For the last ten years, we've worked one-on-one with students from elementary school through graduate school. No matter their age, no matter the material, when you ask what they're struggling with, students almost universally name a subject: "math," "English" or, in some instances, "school." Doubting that all of school is the issue, we then ask to see their last test. After some grumbling, the student digs down, deep into the dark, dank recesses of his or her backpack, and pulls out a balled-up, lunch-stained paper that, once smoothed out, turns out to be the latest exam.

To a teacher, this should be incredibly frustrating. You spend a huge part of your life grading tests, commenting on essays, and providing thoughtful feedback on homework assignments . . . only to have them wadded up and ignored. (Yes, students look at their tests, but you shouldn't harbor any illusion that they look at anything but the red letter grade.) Before writing students off for being ungrateful or lazy, you need to understand why what they're doing makes perfect sense.

The Science Behind Mistakes

Telling students they need to take advantage of the feedback they get isn't just good advice -- it's established science. In the last few decades, researchers have discovered a lot about how people become experts. The main idea, made popular by everyone from author Malcolm Gladwell to rapper Macklemore, is the 10,000-hour rule. Ten thousand is the number of hours it takes to become an expert in almost any field. While it's wonderful that people are starting to understand how work leads to expertise, the most important part of that research is not how much practice someone needs to perform, but what kind of practice. This latter category is called deliberate practice and involves isolating what's not working and mastering the difficult area before moving on.

Picture a classical violinist rehearsing. He or she would not play a new piece start-to-finish, fudging through tricky sections and trying to "be done." That musician stops in trouble spots, figures them out, and then plays that measure over and over again, and only moves on when it's perfect. The same principle applies to schoolwork.

Mistakes are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus that deliberate practice.

So why don't students view their mistakes as a valuable asset? Well, students don't think about their mistakes rationally -- they think about them emotionally. Mistakes make students feel stupid. "Stupid" is just that: a feeling. Specifically, it's the feeling of shame, and our natural response is to avoid its source. If we say something embarrassing, we hide our face. If we get a bad grade, we hide the test away. Unsurprisingly, that's the worst move to make if you ever want to get better. Academic success does not come from how smart or motivated students are. It comes from how they feel about their mistakes.

Changing your students' perspective on mistakes is the greatest gift you can give yourself as a teacher. Imagine having a classroom of students who are engaged and constantly improving -- it's every teacher's dream. Instead, teachers face too many students who are disengaged and really rather surly. That surliness is years in the making. By the time students walk into your classroom, they've likely already internalized their mistakes as evidence that they're just not smart. Getting a bad grade feels like a personal attack. No wonder they're giving the deliverer of those grades the stink eye.


Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien


A Fresh Take on Mistakes

To help your students rethink mistakes, help them be specific about their errors. Knowing that answer #3 is wrong doesn't mean much. Knowing that they didn't understand mitosis gives them a mandate for getting better. Often, when we go through tests with students, the mistakes they perceive as dire are either careless errors or a single concept applied incorrectly on several questions. Either way, the "fix" is usually smaller than how big the problem feels.

You can also help students view their mistakes as helpful. The red pen isn't the enemy -- when students understand how to deal with errors, red means go. One way to encourage that attitude is to take the most common mistakes that the class made on a test or quiz and analyze them together. The more open everyone is about the mistakes they've made and how they happened, the less significance any student will place on future errors.

Mistakes happen for concrete reasons. A student didn't memorize all the requisite facts, didn't execute the steps of a process, or perhaps just ignored the directions. The red "X" is just a simple assessment of the actions that student took -- actions he or she can easily fix next time. Sharing that clarity and causality with your students is the best way to teach deliberate practice, instill motivation and help them develop a more constructive relationship with mistakes. In short, this creates the class you and your students have always wanted.


Comments (37)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Elaine Gowie Fleischer's picture
Elaine Gowie Fleischer
Scottish High School English teacher in Norway

In oral presentations I give my students feedback to improve then give them a second chance to do better! Students really appreciate the second chance!

Marcia James-McKenzie's picture

This topic is timely and crucial for us to reflect on before we take another step forward. This subject focuses on the human nature of all students and we should be concerned. How many times do we feel despondent when we see the feedback we have given to our students on a particular work left sitting all alone on a desk, or huddled at the bottom of their bags or discarded in the garbage? It is not what we do but how we feel about these actions that cause of to think that our students do not care; or we have wasted our ink and our time marking the work.
Well this side of the coin has make me realized that our students have emotions and yes, we feel that very same way at times when our mistakes are revealed to us. So, what do we do? Shall we continue on the same path or do we address the problem. And how do we address this problem after all our aim is to encourage student learning not discourage it.
Here are some solutions:
1 Mark with blue or black ink. This will make it mutual and put you in the same level with the student.
2. Discuss these mistakes with the student individually. By doing this it shows that you care.
3. Discuss with students the meaning of Perfection and Imperfection.
4. Have a lesson entitled "My most Embarrassing Moment".

As teachers we must remember that our aim it to teach the whole child. Taking a moment out of Maths lesson to focus on an emotional issue will go a far way.
Remember we teach for life. Let us do everything in our power to meet the needs of our students and stop taking then for granted.

Christinacyr's picture
ESL Teacher

It was refreshing to read your perspective on mistakes. I had never really viewed mistakes as valuable however, it is quite true. I truly see that constructive feedback is essential before errors fossilize. In my classroom, I try to create a culture where making mistakes is a normal part of learning. For certain assignments, I allow my students to correct their errors and resubmit for credit. :)

Ang Gramly's picture
Ang Gramly
Life Skills Support Teacher, Mifflinburg PA

I agree this was refreshing to read. I encourage my students that it is okay to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them. I cover a wide range of skills in my classroom. My students are learning new concepts all the time.Sometimes they make mistakes on a test, recipe, story they are reading etc. They will get upset at times,but I am trying to teach them that it is ok to make the mistake. i just want them to correct it, and learn from it. I point out to them on a daily basis that I too make mistakes and am learning everyday. We are all human. It is a vital life skill for them to understand.

Jennifer C's picture

This article has many great tips. I think it is important to let students see us as teachers make mistakes. We have to model how to handle mistakes. It is also important to find a positive before we critique. A struggling student needs to hear something positive before he or she gives up altogether.

Marva Wilks's picture
Marva Wilks
Education Consultant

You are SO right. Sometimes our classrooms sorely lack modeling how to muddle through and learn from mistakes. Having students analyze why they've made the mistake in the first place is a learning experience in itself. Modeling how to handle mistakes gives the struggling student a process of what to do after s/he has made a mistake. We need more of this in our classrooms.

Susan Calero's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article. It is so true that we need to teach our students that mistake should be learning experiences. If we take the time to review the mistakes our students make. Then help them see what they did wrong and how to fix it they will truly learn. This will also help our student to become life long learns who view their mistakes as a learning opportunity.

Mike Mac's picture
Mike Mac
Elementary computer technician (K-6) in Pittsburgh, PA

I have two quotes that I love dealing with this very issue. The first if from Benjamin Franklin, "I have not failed. I have only found 10,000 ways that do not work." This from the man responsible for some of the greatest inventions of our times. Things like bifocals and lighting rods that are still being used today.

The second is a quote that I recently came across from Winston Churchill. "Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm."

If only we could teach our students to embrace these ideas and concepts and instill in them that enthusiasm to take their red Xs, their apparent failures and turn them into successes, even if it takes 10,000 of them.

Sally's picture

I appreciate this article because I have seen the value of mistakes in the class. My favorite days were the review of the test. I would grade them and circle problems that were incorrect. Then send them home for homework to fix the mistakes. The next day we would go over the common mistakes or any the students wanted. I loved the aha moments when they realized what they did wrong. I loved the moment when they saw they weren't the only ones and that no one was giving them a hard time about getting something wrong, in fact they worked together to get it right. They truly were real learning moments for all. This article really reinforced what I saw and am glad that others can see the importance of it as well.

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