All teachers know that making mistakes is a vital part of the learning process. Students though, often try to avoid mistakes, sometimes at all costs. Kids are afraid of making mistakes and looking weak to their peers. Even teachers, in their work, beat themselves up for making mistakes. Teachers can foster an attitude in the classroom where mistakes are accepted and celebrated.
To foster this attitude, we must first understand different mistakes: which mistakes are valuable in the learning process and which are not. Eduardo Briceño of Mindset Works has classified mistakes into four types. The first two can help us to grow and improve while the last two are ineffective.
Think back to your psychology courses in college. Do you remember a man named Vygotsky? If so, you’ll also remember the ZPD or “Zone of Proximal Development.” Vygotsky thought that if we stretch a bit, just beyond what we can do, we will be capable of more. Another term for this is scaffolding.
Stretch mistakes are the ones we make when acquiring a new set of skills; like falling when riding a bike, or getting a math problem wrong by one digit. Stretch mistakes DON’T happen when something is too easy or too difficult. If it is too easy, there aren’t many mistakes made, and if it is too hard? We get frustrated and give up.
As teachers, it is best to find that sweet spot for our students where they are still challenged, and just the right type of mistakes should be made. In this way we somewhat plan mistakes. Of course, we don’t anticipate the specific errors our students will make, but we expect for them to make mistakes.
In the course of a school day, each student should make several errors. If they aren’t making any, they aren’t learning.
Even with stretch mistakes, arguably the most effective kind of mistakes, kids can get stuck. Maybe they are learning to read and the keep pronouncing short I incorrectly over and over. When that happens, switch strategies with the student or take a break and come back to it with fresh eyes.
AHA moments are another useful mistake type, though planning for them in instruction is less clear-cut. What follows this type of mistake is often referred to as a ‘lightbulb moment.’ For example, after trying to solve a problem, a student sees something their neighbor does which they then apply to their work.
These mistakes usually stem from a moment of clarity after learning something new or seeing things from a different perspective. While we can’t structure ‘aha moments’ into the school day, we can teach kids some skills that can help them to take these moments and learn from them. We can give them opportunities to work in groups and learn from others. We can also teach them to listen and take feedback from others.
Students don’t learn as much from high-stakes mistakes as other types, just because emotions are so high. Ideally, students learn bit by bit so that when the stakes are high, they can avoid mistakes. For example, a child may touch a hot pan and get a minor burn when they are small. That mistake later prevents them from playing with fire and getting seriously injured. High stakes can be anything that affects your life for an extended period, or anything significant to you, such as standardized tests, safety, moral choices, etc.
Sloppy mistakes are those that have the least to offer students. These mistakes are made primarily because of carelessness, the exact opposite of what we are trying to foster in our children. Teachers should teach children to take their time and do their best. That mistakes are ok, but that it is essential to give your best effort.
How can we help our students learn from their mistakes, no matter what kind they are? Here are a few suggestions:
Reflection: Teach students to reflect on their mistakes. Why did they make it, how can they avoid it next time?
Help kids see the value of their mistakes. Encourage them to think about how things would be different had they never made a mistake. Mistakes motivate us to do better.
Discuss: Share some of your own mistakes with your students and what you’ve learned. Encourage them to share with each other. This normalizes the fact that no one is perfect and takes the shame out of showing your mistakes.
Reward Improvement and Effort: Reward effort rather than correct answers. This is very, very important. In every class, no matter what age, subject, or type, there are always students who are more and less capable in each area. If your students see others who get praise and accolades for their right answers or innate ability while wrong answers are shunned, those that don’t sit on the top of the heap will give up. Check out Making The Effort for lessons that emphasize effort and teach students the value of grit & persistence.
No matter the type, a mistake is a teachable moment. Take these opportunities to reward students for effort and help them continue to learn.
By: Amy Curletto
Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.