We are in the middle of a time when performance expectations are at a particularly high peak. Test scores and grades drive most of the learning in the classroom; mastery and regurgitation of content are deemed as significant academic successes; tutors are hired for children in primary school, to help them get “ready” for admission into college; even preschools have an 18-month waiting list. Somehow, the end, and not the means, has become the sole focus of our attention.
In an environment that is academically intense and ‘achievement-oriented,’ perhaps one thing that we’re not focusing on enough is teaching our students how to make mistakes. There’s no doubting that academic success is important; so is the rigor that paves the path to success. But, just as we need our students to learn how to achieve, we also need them to learn how to make mistakes. What better way to ‘teach’ them that, than model it ourselves?
My co-teacher and I, often and very deliberately, set ourselves up to make an obvious blunder in the classroom. This could be something as simple as making a grammatical error while speaking, fumbling to find the right word to use in a sentence, having to repeat what we said because we did a terrible job the first time, or even making a mistake while working something out on the blackboard/whiteboard in front of our students. At the outset, this adds an element of humour to the classroom – because, of course, we all love to see a teacher mess up at something in class, don’t we? What follows, though, is a conscious acknowledgement of the mistake; we don’t attempt to shrug it off or nervously laugh it away. Instead, we do a ‘Think-Aloud’ in front of our students, where we reflect with each other on what we did wrong, and how we could do better – but out loud, to share that thinking process with our students. Some of the questions we ask ourselves in this process range from “What went wrong?” “Where did we get stuck?” “Why did we make this mistake?” to “What could we do better next time?”, “What did we learn from this?” and “How can we get better at this?”
Such ‘mistake-making’ shows our students that, even with focused intentions and full effort, you may not always get everything right. Even when you think you’ve got something down pat, you may trip and fumble; and that is okay. It shifts the perspective on mistakes – from being embarrassing and needing to be covered up to being a source for learning, and a powerful source at that. You can be “told” a number of times how to work something out or overcome a challenge; figuring out how to do this, especially after getting stuck yourself, builds understanding that is more authentic, meaningful, and therefore likely to stay with you.
Making mistakes, and equally important, reflecting on mistakes made, embeds academic learning with a layer of meta-cognitive skills. It builds the skill of thinking about how to learn and how to overcome an academic challenge. This is vital, because realistically, in life, things don’t always go the way we plan them. We don’t always succeed in our first attempt at everything. Knowing how to learn from our mistakes and move on is pretty much a survival skill in the 21st century. I would contend that a lack in this skill is a significant reason students grapple with low motivation and lower levels of self-confidence; if they don’t believe that making mistakes is real and acceptable, and, if they haven’t learned how to embrace failure and move forward, they run the risk of letting mistakes overwhelm them, even define them. They also run the risk of gradually shying away from tasks that are more challenging, lest they “fail” again. Therefore, it becomes even more important, for us as teachers, to work on fostering this life skill; perhaps most effectively by modeling it ourselves, in our classrooms.
When teachers make mistakes, students learn that it is okay to take risks, to try new things, even if it means things don’t work out perfectly right away. They learn that making mistakes is not something to be ashamed or embarrassed about; neither is it a sign of incompetence, or a lack in ability. All it is, really, is a natural part of the learning process-one that should be embraced and taken as an opportunity to learn more. As teachers, the onus really lies on us, to lead by example and show our students that it is okay to make mistakes – not the same ones, but new ones – and learn from them. In the rat race for ranking, achievement and perfection, let’s not forget a life skill our students need – to fall and learn how to get up.
(This article originally appeared in Teacher Plus, titled “Misses” can make mistakes too)