November 2016: Learning by Mistake

Learning by Mistake

It is hard to believe that we are approaching the end of the first marking period already. This milepost can be cause for great celebration or, in some instances, can incite a mix of anxiety and dread. The end of the marking period means that students will be receiving overall grades or scores for the work they have produced thus far in the school year. This practice is a standard component of how we chart our students’ progress towards grade level skills and knowledge.  Although a valuable part of setting and determining goals, this formal measure of progress is less relevant to ultimate student growth than the ongoing feedback that occurs between students and teachers or between students and their peers each day in the classroom. These daily informal interactions or assessments allow teachers to track the ongoing progress of their students regularly and often. They are designed for the purpose of adjusting instruction by determining whether students are learning what is being taught. By using informal assessment methods, teachers can target students' specific problem areas, adapt instruction, and intervene earlier rather than later.

These opportunities for feedback allow us to recognize and embrace the human condition, specifically the reality that we all make mistakes!  Too often as adults we try to shield our children from making mistakes.  This intention, although noble, emerges from our own need to keep our kids safe from harm and emotional stress.  How often have we claimed that we do not want our little ones to make the same mistakes that we made in our youth?  Our personal experience often compels us to override opportunities for our children to learn life lessons. We swoop down to their rescue far too soon rather than allowing them to falter.  This does not imply that we encourage reckless behavior or poor judgment.  We do not.  We do, however, believe in the adage that our mistakes can be our best teachers.

Too often grown-ups send mixed messages to kids about mistake making. Although we talk about the importance of making and learning from mistakes, we also communicate disappointment and judgment when they occur.  It is little wonder then that mistakes can be a source of shame, and even punishment, leading our children to develop what Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, calls a “fixed mindset”.  A fixed mindset limits a child’s perception of himself and fosters the belief that he is only judged by his innate ability…or lack thereof.  We have all heard students claim that “I am just not good in math”.  “I will never be successful in school.” Our responsibility as parents and as educators is to shift this habit of limited thinking and grow confident and self-reliant learners (and human beings) motivated to work hard and know that it is the effort that leads to satisfaction and, ultimately, beyond our mistakes to success.

Our classrooms and school experiences are perfect for creating safe places for making mistakes.  Adults are present to model and guide students and to praise them for the ways they approach setbacks and how they handle conflict.  Teachers ask students to explain their thinking especially when their process leads them to a wrong conclusion.  Waiting until the last minute to prepare for a presentation, forgetting an instrument for band, or leaving a textbook at home are all common missteps that can become opportunities to accept responsibility and hone good habits.

Learning by mistake encourages us to take risks as we explore alternative solutions to a problem, think in new ways, develop new perspectives and discover what works…and what doesn’t.  Mistakes help break down our misconceptions and deepen our learning.

Learning by mistake develops resilience. Sometimes, try as we might, a solution seems impossible.  During these times we are forced to simply accept that things are not working out. These moments, although maddening, provide invaluable opportunities for us as adults to help our kids develop resilience and coping skills. It is our responsibility to help them normalize the struggle and to understand that mistakes are not only expected but accepted. This way of thinking strengthens the ability to bounce back from difficulty and to build a more resilient character.

Learning by mistake inspires forgiveness.  This is actually a simple concept, for who among us has never made a mistake?  What would our lives be like if we were defined only by the mistakes we’ve made, the errors in judgement we have unwittingly committed?  And what if we were never reassured that it would be okay in spite of the fact that we may have mishandled a situation?  As others have forgiven us for our mistakes it is up to us to forgive others for theirs.  Especially our children.

As you talk with your children about the school day, I encourage you to ask them what, if any, mistakes they made?  This question when asked regularly can generate a habit of growth mindset and open avenues for discussion.  Imagine sharing with your child a similar mistake that you made at her age.  And imagine what it might be like for her to realize that mom or dad isn’t perfect either.  Nor was Thomas Edison.  Edison understood that he could learn as much from his failures as he did from his successes.  In fact, it took him 10,000 attempts to perfect the electric light bulb! As you talk over supper or at bedtime, remind your children often of his wise words, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  

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