Nurturing Mistake Tolerance in the Classroom

Teachers can help students get over the fear of making a mistake by showing them that errors are just a part of the learning process.

May 16, 2024
Iakov Filimonov / Alamy

Our students do not like making mistakes in front of their peers. As a matter of fact, I can say the same for many adults. This dislike leads to an avoidance of failure in the hopes of preserving notions of identity and self-efficacy. What I define as “fear branding” is the perception, often implicit in nature, of being outed as incompetent by one’s community.

This fear can lead students down trauma spirals of internalized inadequacies, classroom disruptions, and other barriers undermining their confidence as learners. The resulting outlook can last a lifetime, limiting individuals’ horizons and opportunities. These effects may be more pronounced among students who already face disadvantages in the classroom, including stereotypes about their educational capacity.

One of the most ambitious goals of educators is to teach students what to do when they don’t know what to do. Social scientists illustrate these fear-branded trauma spirals through theories such as Albert Bandura’s reciprocal determinism and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset; practitioners, on the other hand, find tangible value in applying knowledge to execution. Teachers need practice-based instructional activities that engage students in problem-solving development to move beyond the barriers highlighted in erudition.

The challenge is that learning is messy. The nonlinearity of trial and error (e.g., starting and stopping, hesitating, confusion, drafting, amending) requires a mistake tolerance that must be nurtured in the classroom. As this tolerance builds, students not only openly embrace mistakes as part of the learning process but also acknowledge their intrinsic value as they mature into expert learners.

3 Ways to Grow Students’ Mistake Tolerance

1. Use jigsaw activities. These activities break up complex text into smaller, disjointed chunks that students work collaboratively to piece together, creating coherence and meaning. Arranging ideas and/or events chronologically, logically, or sequentially requires a grit for trial and error that expert learners sometimes take for granted. Jigsaw activities create opportunities for students to gain confidence through justifying their ordering by experimentation, negotiating text meaning, and identifying target language.

First, I introduce this activity to students using comic strips. Students practice shuffling comic strip panels in the correct order by identifying key story elements (e.g., plot, setting, characters, point of view, theme). I then increase the rigor by tasking students to correctly sequence reading passage sections, employing the same story-element identification.

This tactile approach to text engagement mirrors that of puzzling. Like puzzles, the comic strip panels or text sections within the jigsaw activity are in pieces that have to be assembled properly. Manipulating the puzzle components and figuring out where they fit within the larger picture requires problem-solving perseverance as students develop their abilities to plan and test ideas. From a social and emotional standpoint, completing jigsaw activities also helps students learn how to accept challenges, overcome problems, and deal with the frustrations of failure.

2. Guide students to get the GIST. These activities are summarizing exercises that help students focus on main ideas. Developed by James Cunningham, PhD, in 1982, GIST (Generating Interactions between Schemata and Texts) helps students improve reading comprehension and increase recall of complex texts. As the name suggests, GIST scaffolds the removal of extraneous detail as students evaluate and create information to convey the crux of what they read. It’s an adaptable strategy that can be used with a variety of informational and literary texts and is an effective tool to use in content areas.

Students read a text and respond to the six common journalists’ questions on the GIST template (who, what, when, where, why, and how). Using their responses, students identify the most important information by paring down the text into summaries of 20 words or less (the teacher predefines the GIST word count).

As students work to comply with the word constraint, you will notice the messiness of trial and error as students revise, alter, and refine their summaries to fit the predefined parameter. As a result, students build mistake tolerance in low-stakes routines using various combinations of elaborative rehearsal, reorganization, and contextualized language.

3. Actively model critical thinking. To create a classroom culture truly open to mistakes, teachers must not only embrace them among students, but actively model their own tolerance for mistakes. We should want our students to see that we, too, wrestle with getting ideas down on paper. Follow a plan to ensure that you’re modeling the type of thinking you intended. Stay in character as a learner, not a teacher.

For example, imagine that you’re working through a text or a task for the first time. Model the types of thinking you expect from the students. Like a good learner, ask yourself questions, and verbalize inner dialogue.

  • What is the author trying to tell me? Is that a clue about what’s going to happen next?
  • What happens next if I do this? Is this getting me closer to my goal?

Narrate actions you’re about to do, such as “I’d better write that down” or “That didn’t work. I’d better erase that step and start over.” Let students see and hear you struggle with your thinking. Students also need to see the strategies that good learners use to overcome challenges. It’s important for them to see that all learners encounter challenges and that it’s OK. So not only verbalize struggle but model the metacognitive and critical-thinking strategies that good learners use for overcoming challenges. Try modeling perseverance by building in some unsuccessful attempts and giving yourself a little pep talk after each one.

Learning is a continuous process that involves practice, adjustment, and refinement. When students are given the tools and information needed up front, trial and error can be a fun method of learning. Lived experience, which often comes with discovering the right way to do something while making mistakes along the way, is the basis for learning and one of the foundational characteristics related to the motivation of seasoned learners.

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  • Literacy
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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