Brain-Based Learning

The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom

Journalist Alina Tugend finds that mistakes should not only be tolerated, but encouraged.

As the school doors swing open to welcome the start of another year, both teachers and students will have goals: to inspire a class, to learn new things, to get good grades.

What probably won't be on that list is to make a mistake -- in fact many. But it should be.

Why? Because we're raising a generation of children -- primarily in affluent, high-achieving districts -- who are terrified of blundering. Of failing. Of even sitting with the discomfort of not knowing something for a few minutes.

If students are afraid of mistakes, then they're afraid of trying something new, of being creative, of thinking in a different way. They're scared to raise their hands when they don't know the answer and their response to a difficult problem is to ask the teacher rather than try different solutions that might, gasp, be wrong.

They're as one teacher told me, "victims of excellence."

Why is this? Because success in school is too often defined as high marks on tests. And if results are all that matter in education, then mistakes play no positive role. They are only helpful if we believe that the process of learning -- which inevitably must include the process of erring -- is just as, or more, important than getting to the correct answer.

I realize that parents play a crucial role in how their children view mistakes -- and I've written about that -- but here, I'm focusing on educators.

While writing my book Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, I came across some fascinating research about how children learn and what message they take away about mistakes.

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has conducted groundbreaking research in this area. One of her experiments asked 400 5th graders in New York City schools to take an easy short test, on which almost all performed well. Half the children were praised for "being really smart."  The other half was complimented "having worked really hard."

Then they were asked to take a second test and given the options of either choosing one that was pretty simple and they would do well on, or one that was more challenging, but they might make mistakes.

Of those students praised for effort, 90 percent chose the harder test. Of those praised for being smart, the majority chose the easy test. Dweck has conducted such experiments and studies in a variety of school districts -- low-income, high-income, homogenous and mixed- culture and races.

A cornerstone of Dweck's research is the concepts of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. Those with fixed mindsets, as Professor Dweck says, believe people are good at something -- either good at math or music or baseball -- or they're not. For those with a fixed mindset, mistakes serve no purpose but to highlight failure.

Those with what Professor Dweck calls growth mindsets -- who believe that some people are better or worse in certain areas but we can all improve and develop our skills and abilities -- are much more likely to be able to accept mistakes because they know they're part of learning.

And studies in a secondary school have shown that when students are taught about growth mindsets and that the brain is malleable, their motivation to learn dramatically increases. Take a look at the web site if you want to learn more.

This doesn't mean, of course, that we can all be world-class chess players or pro athletes, but rather that we all have a much greater ability to develop our potential than we think we do. It takes hard work, however, and we can't do it without taking chances and making mistakes.

Embracing such an ideology also means, to circle back, that the emphasis in schools must be on the process of learning, not solely the results. I know this is difficult in our country now, particularly when so much stress is put on standardized tests -- which are all about results and not exploring different ideas -- as a way to measure the success of both teachers and children.

But it can be done. We can learn from other cultures -- for example, in Japan, children are allowed, and expected, to work out a problem in front of the class for 10 minutes or more. Even if the student is wrong, there is no shame. Mistakes are an indication, not of failure, in these classrooms, but of what still needs to be learned.

I also know a group of fourth-grade and fifth-grade teachers in New York who, inspired by the idea that children need to learn to make and live with mistakes, are developing their own lesson plan to build resilient learners. The idea is to help students examine the ideas of effort and persistence, learn to take risks and accept imperfection and be willing to sit with the uncertainty of not knowing.

It's a big task. But over time, I think we can teach students how to shift the prism at least slightly, so they look at mistakes not as something to be dreaded and avoided, but as an inevitable -- and often very helpful -- part of learning.

© 2011 Alina Tugend