Room to Make a Big Mistake
November 1, 2017
As teachers, we’re programmed to strive for success. We want our students to take in our lessons, internalize them, and demonstrate their learning in such a way that earns them a good grade. The grade then becomes the chief communicator of learning mastered—proof to parents, principals, and you the teacher that the student, the class, and you as a teacher are indeed successful. But if our goal is learning, well, then we have to overwrite this programming. The teacher that makes room for mistakes is the teacher that makes room for learning.
Think back to the most memorable lessons in your own life. Chances are they were born out of a mistake or failure. Don’t believe me? Here’s just one of my own mistake-leads-to-learning examples. I remember a poetry class in college where my professor shared a poem and asked us to study it to determine the author’s intent. I studied the poem and came to the next class with what I was certain was a brilliant interpretation of the poem. I had found the poet’s subtle meaning, and I was genuinely moved by the message and its applicability to my own life. But I quickly discovered my interpretation was dead wrong. How do I know? Because the professor was the poet and he told me so.
Turns out the professor knew we’d all fail. He knew we’d each interpret the author’s intent differently. The larger lessons he imparted were:
1) Don’t think you know everything, because you don’t.
2) Everyone has an interpretation that is true and meaningful to them.
I don’t remember the poem or the interpretation that at the time was so meaningful to me. But I do remember how I felt when I realized I was wrong, and I have never forgotten the two lessons that resulted.
So, take a moment to consider what you want for your students. I encourage you to strive for something grander than success. Certainly strive for something more material than good grades. Establish a culture that encourages and celebrates risk-taking. Create a safe environment where students can fail, can discuss their failures, and can share what they learn from them. It’s not easy to let them fail. It’s even harder to watch them struggle. But keep the end game in mind. They are there to learn. There’s no better way to learn than from your mistakes.
Here are a few ways you can promote risk-taking in your classroom.
What It Looks Like in the Classroom
Share wrong answers and deconstruct them with the class; celebrate the thinking even if it’s wrong. Show an incorrect answer/response, and ask the class, “What do you notice?” Praise the effort and thinking that went into the response, but guide students to discover where the student went wrong and what they could do to avoid making the same mistake. Or highlight the incorrect answer and say, “I have a question about this response. Let’s revisit this after we learn a little more.” Then guide students in learning the material needed to correct any previous misconception.
Share your own mistakes regularly. Let them see that you’re not perfect and that you don’t expect them to be. Share your own mistakes, big and small, on a weekly basis. It will not only show students that everyone learns from mistakes, but will also make you students more motivated to please you when they see you as a real, fallible human being.
Provide feedback that rewards risk-taking and challenges students. Here are a few phrases you can try: “I like how you tried something new here.” “I think you played this safe. Next time try giving more detail in your story.” “I bet you could do this with a 3-digit number next time. Give it a try.” “What other variables could you test in this investigation to be more confident in your results?”
Let them struggle. Give the problem and then give them time to struggle with it. Avoid the temptation to jump in and show them the answer. The longer the struggle time, the more cemented the learning is likely to be.