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The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom

Alina Tugend

Author, journalist for The New York Times, and mother of two wonderful boys
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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

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Comments (26) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

ahausauer's picture
fifth grade teacher from Fargo, North Dakota

I also feel that if we are choosing multiple ways of assessment in the classroom, we are going to see the student in his/her best light and probably learn a lot about the student. Yes, he/she will make mistakes, but we're human. Looking at a variety of assessments will allow us as teachers to make the best academic decisions for our students.

asalem's picture
First grade teacher from North Bergen, New Jersey

I see a lot of students who are afraid of raising their hands and making a mistake. It hurts me to know that students are afraid of making mistakes. In my class, I try to teach students that making mistakes is the only way at getting better. When I have parent teacher conferences, I try to explain to the parents that their grade does not really reflect who they are and what they are capable of doing and/or learning. Some parents understand and others still push their child to do better which sometimes puts a lot of distress on the student. This makes them less motivated. It is hard to make the balance of what I, as a teacher is teaching them, and what their parents are teaching and telling them.

norbert boruett's picture

One said to error is human. Mistakes have to be accepted. We have saying in Africa that says making a mistake is no big deal, a mistake when you repeat the same mistake. I am in the field of training health workers, and you know a mistake there sometimes my cost a life. So in medical education we introduced skillslab to allow mistakes and subsequently learning. I know even in the physical sciences lifes may lost ie electrocution,chemical or physical burns- we have to teach caution

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Love your insight! We have a song/lesson plan called "Messy" which teaches students to appreciate the wisdom they gain through making mistakes rather than feeling deflated every time they aren't perfect. As you can imagine, it's one of our most popular song/lessons.This is an amazing article. Pinning, tweeting, facebooking. Thanks for pointing all this out. btw When I work w/kids, I often make mistakes, then correct myself in front of them. Part of the lesson :-)

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Anyone read this book yet? "Fostering Grit - How do I prepare my students for the real world?" by Thomas R. Hoerr

I heard him speak at ASCD and was very intrigued with everything he was saying about growth and fixed mindsets. His examples were also powerful.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Kids are excellent scientists and have no fear of trial and error until adults label error with grades and negative consequences. Talked about squelching the love of learning!

Jackie Hol's picture
Jackie Hol
EFL Teacher in Japan

I'm a big encourager of mistakes in the classroom so I was happy to find this post, but I must admit I was surprised at the comment about Japanese classrooms. I actually stumbled across your article because I was looking for materials to have my Japanese students read which would encourage them to make mistakes! I'm not sure where you got the information that there's no shame in Japanese classrooms, but if it's from personal experience, then I feel confident in saying that your experience can't be generalized to all classes.

At my school, students are very afraid to speak up. Most teachers need to call on students because they won't speak up on their own. I try very hard and in different ways to encourage my students to volunteer in class and not worry about mistakes. However, a couple times I have had to resort to calling on students. When I asked them in private later why they didn't volunteer, their response has always been some variation of "I was afraid I would be wrong." Most students only volunteer if they're very confident. Students will try their best when called upon, but it's not because of a lack of fear or shame; it seems to be out of respect for the teacher who called upon them. From conversations with other teachers, I've learned that this fear of being wrong extends to other classes and to other schools, too.

I'm wondering if you have more information about this school if it is a personal experience of yours-- e.g. what they are doing that's different from the majority of schools I'm familiar with. If not, I'd be interested in hearing some other, stronger examples of places where students feel comfortable with making mistakes. But overall, it was nice to read from the perspective of a supporter of mistake-making. Thank you.

Alina Tugend's picture
Alina Tugend
Author, journalist for The New York Times, and mother of two wonderful boys

The example I give regarding Japan does not come from personal experience but from extensive academic research. I devote a chapter in my book, "Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong," to cultural differences in viewing mistakes and much of it focuses on Asia, primarily Japan, and North America.

Some of the key researchers in this area are Steven Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Hazel Markus, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, and James Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA.

Catherine Lewis also wrote a book in 1995 entitled "Educating Hearts and Minds:Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education" that delves into this subject.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

There are many people who learn from a young age that making mistakes feels terrible and can be embarrassing. This is the lesson that often gets learned in school. To defend ourselves from ever being wrong, we try to be perfect, but inevitably fail, making things worse. Nothing ever turns out as we expect, and that's a core part of being human.

Kathy Myer's picture

I really enjoyed this article. I have seen so many kids who are so afraid of failure that they avoid risking any challenge, and that results in lower educational outcomes. I have also observed what the author mentioned; "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." We need to teach emotional intelligence and build self confidence by rewarding thinking processes and grading for growth. I have seen Dr. Dweck's work before, and I think we need to work towards a cultural mindset that reflects our understanding of this type of performance psychology.

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