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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 (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien's picture
Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien
Authors of The Straight-A Conspiracy

Thanks so much for commenting. We're glad you enjoyed the post and you've raised a really helpful issue.

In the initial stages, students tend to think that the purpose of reviewing mistakes is to learn individual concepts. As a result, if the student already knows that one concept then they're going to be bored. Ultimately though--and what we really drive home with our students--is that what needs to be done to fix this mistake is less important than the process by which we handle any mistake.

Actually, when teachers mark something wrong, they're giving incredibly specific feedback. For something to be wrong--whether it's a mistake on a math problem, a history test or a misplaced comma--it must have broken some rule or some fact. From studies of expertise, we now know that expert-level performance happens in large part because experts have simplified the rule to the stage where it's easy to use. Often, the rule as written in the textbook is very complicated for a student since it incorporates many unfamiliar or very new terms. The key is simplifying it way, way down to "what do I do" and "when do I do it" statements. Exponent rules in Algebra become as simple as adding numbers when the letters or numbers on the bottom are the same and being multiplied. Punctuation rules become about recognizing that when I have certain kinds of clauses then I put in a comma. Whatever the rule is, it has to be turned into a "recipe for action." So often students can repeat the rule but they don't know what it's telling them to do. In our book, we use Betty Crocker as the ultimate test for that sort of actionable clarity, because Betty Crocker (or rather the food scientists at General Mills) took baking and got the steps to a place where they were so clear that anybody could do them.

So, when we're workshopping mistakes with a group, it's not about that particular mistake. It's about how we use each mistake to figure out what rule we got wrong (using the textbook or some online resource) and how we then make each rule Cake-Mix Clear. That way, whatever rule students are having difficulty with they have the tools to be able clear that rule up for themselves at home.

Of course, this is for mistakes where people don't understand the concept. There are also mistakes that happen because students knew the rule but carelessly didn't follow it. That might be because they didn't show enough working or they didn't go through the process slowly enough and carefully enough to guarantee accuracy. Or maybe they're not reading in a way that allows them to understand the word problem or their assigned reading. The key, in that case, is teaching them to slow down, look up words they don't know and piece together the meaning. Rather than going through what they're reading like a cartoon character eating corn-on-the-cob, they need to approach it like a detective that uses the pieces of the passage to piece together an answer. What we call "Sherlocking." You can get a sense of what we mean with this last one by reading our free sample chapter online. If you click on this link it'll automatically download: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/s/wvie4qo3wwdfssy/Straight-A_Chapter7_...

We've found it really helpful to frame each technique with a metaphor like relating clarifying rules to Betty Crocker or reading for comprehension to Sherlock Holmes. That helps students understand that what we're really focused on is not understanding this particular concept but the whole process of how we effectively use mistakes. Whatever metaphor you choose to use with your students the key is drawing their attention to the way of dealing with mistakes rather than this one concept. Showing students how to fix a mistake is helpful. Showing students how to fix mistakes in general is really transformative.

Thanks again for reading and commenting! This was a really helpful piece of feedback!

Atlas Educational's picture
Atlas Educational
Lifelong learner, teacher, homeschool mom, homeschool support services

Ah...but it all starts with adults who not only accept, but EMBRACE mistakes. In this era of rush (especially in education), adults need to encourage the time it truly takes for genuine learning through student choices, mistakes, reflections, and continual growth.

Dr.StevenCook's picture
Middle School Principal, Douglas County School District, Colorado

I LOVE that you included Macklemore in an article regarding supporting students embracing revision of work! Well played!!

HouseOfStudy's picture
President of The House of Study, an Education Think Tank

I'm waiting to see a comment on one of my daughters' papers that says: "You took a big risk here. It didn't work out for you. A+."

My point is, until we embrace risk-taking in general much more than we do, we can't be surprised that kids take the safest and most sanitized routes to success. Careless errors are one thing, but you won't make PRODUCTIVE mistakes, as a teacher or a student, unless you inhabit a space where somewhat risky ventures are praiseworthy.

finleyjd's picture
Cooperative Education Coordinator, Randolph Technical Career Center. #VTed

Yes, yes, yes. I couldn't agree more! As educators we need to create a culture in our classrooms where mistakes are not only accepted, but expected.

finleyjd's picture
Cooperative Education Coordinator, Randolph Technical Career Center. #VTed

I love this article. I think that it is important to build on it, however.

First, we absolutely need to create a culture where students feel comfortable with mistakes and understand that learning is a process. However, we also need to understand that learning how to give good feedback is not easy.

I would like to see more opportunities in our professional development for practicing giving feedback to students. Students will never embrace their mistakes until they are comfortable with how Teachers respond and give feedback on those mistakes.

The second area we need to build on is the idea that feedback should be specific. I agree, but giving feedback should be not just specific, but Kind, Specific, and Helpful. Here is a link that introduced me to this idea. I think you'll find it to be a simple and useful structure for practicing the Process of Feedback.

Peer Assessment and Metaphorical Fish

Marva Wilks's picture
Marva Wilks
Education Consultant

As I look at this article, my colleagues and I marvel at how comfortable kids are when they are learning a sport. In sports, the learner is so motivated to learn how to master the skill. They don't see an error as a judgement on them. They see it as an opportunity to learn. We have to foster a learning environment where students have the desire to "want to" use the information to learn. Stiggins, Chappuis, et al, in the book Classroom Assessment for Learning, say teachers AND students must use assessment data FOR learning before we assess learning. This way, students build a different relationship with mistakes and assessments.

Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien's picture
Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien
Authors of The Straight-A Conspiracy

Marva! Katie and I always talk about the huge difference between how students think about practice in sports and how they think about practice in academics. So much of that difference is because of the visibility of that practice. A kid can see how and how much another kid is practicing dribbling or a corner kick. On the other hand, most of the practice that happens in academics happens inside the student's head. It is invisible to everyone else. One of the most important and valuable things that we can do for students is to help make that practice visible by having everyone in the classroom talk out loud about their thought process as they are tackling problems. Thank you so much for taking the time to post such a valuable observation!

Andrew Pass's picture
Andrew Pass
Developing Customized Educational Content

There are some very interesting similarities between the ideas of mistakes, and an opportunity to embed mistakes in the learning process, and a recent article in EdWeek. This EdWeek article was an interview with Dr. James Pellegrino. The interview was about embedding assessment in practice. http://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?DISPATCHED=true&cid=25983841&item=http%3A...

In order for teachers to have the opportunity to help students learn from mistakes it would be ideal if content was developed that would support this process. There are ideal questions and activities that can support this learning process. The more support teachers can receive in this process, the better off their students will be.


Amy A's picture
Amy A
Fourth Grade Teacher from Georgia

Recently, I have been researching to understand student morale in the classroom. This year I feel the morale is mostly negative; students seem unmotivated, bored, and unfriendly to their peers. I spoke with many of my colleagues to offer some advice to me as to why the morale seems so low and ways I can help students find positivity in school. Most of my colleagues have stated, "It is the generation of kids; they do not care anymore." Great advice, right? Therefore, I have taken my own steps to research student struggles that may cause negativity in the classroom. Through several articles, I have found that peer relationships play a major role in how students perceive themselves and school. My research revealed to me that low student morale can be caused by negative teacher morale or student-teacher relationships. Your blog post made me think about how some teachers view student mistakes; negatively. Teachers often respond with "no, that is not right." Teachers need to take a step back to think about how they respond to their students in the classroom. Their reactions are often the same as student reactions; students are simply following teacher responses.

Reading your blog post also made me think about how students and peers view each others mistakes as negative. If one student gets an answer "wrong," then others laugh or yell out that it was not right. I agree in that students feel ashamed and often revert to no longer participating in discussions in fear of getting something wrong and being made fun of.

I have learned through this blog post that I need to take more time to discuss student mistakes with students instead of simply saying or writing an answer is wrong. I often do not take the time needed to go over why a student may not understand something.

Overall, through my research on student morale and through reading this blog post and comments, I know that teachers can make a difference in how motivated, engaged, and positive student's experiences are in school. It takes dedication to understand why and time to guide students in seeing their responses in the classroom as learning experiences.

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