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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

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.

Robben Wainer's picture
Robben Wainer
Volunteer Librarian for amilto Grange NYPL

Penmanship is one of the skills whose structure permeates the codes of many classroom rules. When Teachers and students sit down to discuss classroom rules it is evident that such inappropiate tactics such as holding back pens to learn scribbling instead of writing, and all the other tactics to keep children from learning their own approach to study material becomes one of the hazards which like foul play is one whose disguised as being fun and witty, but is one that surprises and fools no one when a child feels they can get away with breaking the rules of learning in the schools.

Bruce Newcomer, M. Ed's picture
Bruce Newcomer, M. Ed
K-5 ELL Teacher

"[S]tudents don't think about their mistakes rationally -- they think about them emotionally."
As teachers, we need to remind ourselves of this when reviewing work with students. In a time of standards and assessment, it is important not to lose the emotional component of student learning and growth.

I like your graphic displaying the effects of how mistakes are viewed. A great visual to show to students.

Bruce Newcomer, M. Ed's picture
Bruce Newcomer, M. Ed
K-5 ELL Teacher

I really like your suggestions. When the authors said, "red means go," I thought of using green pens for checking work in class. Green means go. Let's go figure this out. Let's go keep learning.

g. martinez cabrera's picture
g. martinez cabrera
Community Manager/Program Manager

Love this!! It's nice to see something that seems so basic, but can sometimes, in practice, seem difficult. A lot of non-teachers think you should try and downplay mistakes. They fear that you can hurt a student's self confidence. But that is almost always not the case. Learning is not easy, and it requires a lot of failure. The trick is to get students to a place where they feel safe trying and failing. If they can get that lesson internalized, they will be invincible.

Ivory's picture

Students are always encouraged to not to make any mistakes especially while doing their homework or taking tests. However, if students are inculcated to avoid making any mistakes, they will be afraid of trying something new and lack of courage to take risks. As a foreign teacher, I try to let students understand that a language is flexible and encourage them to create their own sentences, even sentences may not correct.
The sentences on the textbook are just for reference. Students can get good grade by remembering all the sentences on the textbook, but it is useless. Most of the cases show that the kind of students is ONLY good at grade not learning the ability to use a language in the real world efficiently and proficiently. Making mistakes is also the process of learning. The point is that to learn how to fix them and don't make the same mistakes.

Mike Landroche's picture

Carol Dweck's work about "fixed" and "growth" mindsets is helpful here. Her research would support the conclusion -- "Changing your students' perspective on mistakes is the greatest gift you can give yourself as a teacher." More important, however, her research shows that changing student perspectives on mistakes is the greatest gift you can give them. Helping students move from their "fixed" frameworks into "growth" mindsets represents a boost toward interpersonal, spiritual, academic, work-related health!

Howard Pitler's picture

In our recent book, Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd ed. we have a recommendation that feedback should tell a student what they did correctly, what they did wrong, and what they need to do next. We urge teachers to have students redo their work until correct so they learn from their mistakes. Giving a student a failing grade and then moving on gives students a signal that they didn't learn that content, but are now done and can move on.

Bon Crowder's picture
Bon Crowder
Math Mom & Education Advocate

Mistakes DON'T happen for concrete reasons!

You write, "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."

But the reality is that if mistakes were the result of concrete reasons, they would be far less emotionally charged.

In fact, mistakes are the result of ABSTRACT reasons. Often we make mistakes because we don't understand what's going on.

For instance, I've been learning some business concepts. I keep telling my advisors that I don't know the answers because I'm still so lost on all the questions.

Not doing the steps doesn't make you feel stupid. It may make you feel lazy, but not stupid. Totally thinking you did the steps right (even after seeing the red X) but still getting the darn thing wrong makes you feel stupid.

We don't need students to embrace mistakes. We need them to ANALYZE mistakes.

Of course, there ARE often mistakes that are concrete - multiplying 2 and 3 and getting 5, for example. But those mistakes are easy to "embrace." The problem with those "careless" mistakes is that students, again, don't know how to analyze why they keep making them. Or how to stop.

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

Hey Bon,
Thanks so much for taking the time to read the article. These are really good points.

Of course, in writing a blogpost, we only had so much space. That's why we chose to focus on changing the emotional context around mistakes. Shame is a powerful force and before you can see even the most concrete of mistakes, you have to be willing to look at what you got wrong. When I was in high school, I did very well in school but was always intimidated by the kids who were the math superstars. So, when it came time to take physics "the mathiest of sciences" I was sure I was going to struggle. Test after test was a disaster. I'd look at the grade and then quickly shove it in the back of my folder. Eventually, my physics grade was so much lower than the others that I had to do something. I was convinced I was an idiot but was desperate to do something/anything to improve. So, I got out my tests and looked at them. And what was my biggest issue? My 4's looked like 9's and my 1's looked like 7's. In a state of anxiety about how each test would go, I would rush and in the process I misread my own terrible handwriting so that line-by-line the numbers I had written would mutate. By the end, I had the wrong answer even though I'd understood the concept. Mistakes don't get anymore concrete and obvious than that and yet I hadn't been willing to see it because shame was in the way. Embracing my mistakes was the most vital step in turning my physics grade around.

When we work with students, the number one thing we do is have them get out their old tests and go through each mistake one-by-one until we've figured out the concrete reasons why each mistake happened and what can be done to fix it. Mistakes always happen for concrete reasons. There are concrete reasons why planes crash and the FAA is willing to sort through the data until they find them. That sorting process can take years when we're dealing with new procedures like a previously unseen type of plane crash or when you're developing some new business practice. In the context of school, for better or worse, nothing truly new is being taught. The English grammar, physics, math or Spanish are incredibly well-defined. I certainly didn't realize that in high school and nor do most of our students. It's imperative that we let kids know that there are always definite, concrete reasons why those mistakes happened and that they need to embrace AND analyze them to figure out why those mistakes happened.

We wish we'd had more space to go into the analysis of mistakes in this article but alas...blogposts can only be so long. Fortunately, a book can be as long as it needs to be and that's why the second half of our book, The Straight-A Conspiracy, is entirely devoted to teaching students how to analyze their mistakes all by themselves. If you get a chance to check it out, I think you'd really enjoy it.

Doing well in school is remarkably simple. It's all the emotions that teenagers feel that get in the way of them seeing even the simplest of mistakes (like my own bad handwriting) that makes it seem difficult. If we can develop a culture in high schools based around embracing and analyzing mistakes then we'll create a massive transformation in our school system...that will allow teenagers to benefit from all the wonderful teachers, parents, textbooks and internet resources that are waiting to help them figure out exactly why their mistakes happened and what they can do to help them prevent those mistakes from happening again.

We've been so blown away by the response to this article and wish we'd had time to really get into the analysis of mistakes but again we just wanted to focus on that first emotional hurdle. We really value thoughtful moms like you so thank you so much for being you and taking the time to respond.

If you get a chance to read The Straight-A Conspiracy and find anything missing in there, please let us know. Personally, we love using our mistakes to improve in any way that we can,
Hunter (and Katie)

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