Mistakes and the science behind them

One of the many things all teachers seem to spend their lives doing is marking. We spend so much time marking homework, classwork and test papers and give them back to the children with constructive feedback and targets for the children to improve. This all seems very handy.

However there is a problem with this ideology, and it’s the fact that school seems to inherently teach children that you must be getting all the answers right and mistakes are a bad thing. As a result, children don’t really want to look at anything past their overall marks in their exams because they don’t want to see these mistakes.

Now before anyone gets mad at me, no I don’t think children should be written off as lazy or ungrateful for all the feedback we give them and so on, in fact what they do makes perfect sense.

Telling students they need to take advantage of the feedback they get isn’t just good advice — it’s established science. In the last few decades, researchers have discovered a lot about how people become experts. The main idea, made popular by everyone from author Malcolm Gladwell to rapper Macklemore, is the 10,000-hour rule. Ten thousand is the number of hours it takes to become an expert in almost any field. While it’s wonderful that people are starting to understand how work leads to expertise, the most important part of that research is not how much practice someone needs to perform, but what kind of practice. This latter category is called deliberate practice and involves isolating what’s not working and mastering the difficult area before moving on.

Here’s a nice musical analogy for you. Picture a classical violinist rehearsing. He or she would not play a new piece start-to-finish, fudging through tricky sections and trying to “be done.” That musician stops in trouble spots, figures them out, and then plays that measure over and over again, and only moves on when it’s perfect. We can apply this same idea to schoolwork.

Mistakes are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus that deliberate practice.

So why don’t children view their mistakes as a valuable asset? Well, children don’t think about their mistakes rationally — they think about them emotionally. Mistakes make them feel stupid. “Stupid” is just that: a feeling. Specifically, it’s the feeling of shame, and our natural response is to avoid its source. If we say something embarrassing, we hide our face. If we get a bad mark, we hide the test away. Unsurprisingly, that’s the worst move to make if you ever want to get better. Academic success does not come from how smart or motivated children are. It comes from how they feel about their mistakes.

Changing your children’s perspective on mistakes is the greatest gift you can give yourself as a teacher. Imagine having a classroom of students who are engaged and constantly improving — it’s every teacher’s dream. Instead, teachers face too many children who are disengaged and really rather surly. That surliness is years in the making. By the time children walk into your classroom, they’ve likely already internalized their mistakes as evidence that they’re just not smart. Getting a bad grade feels like a personal attack. No wonder they’re giving the deliverer of those grades evil eyes as if to say ‘I hate you so much’.

Ok so what do we do? Well, to help our children rethink mistakes, help them be specific about their errors. Knowing that answer #3 is wrong doesn’t mean much. Knowing that they didn’t understand mitosis gives them a mandate for getting better. Often, when we go through tests with children, the mistakes they perceive as dire are either careless errors or a single concept applied incorrectly on several questions. Either way, the “fix” is usually smaller than how big the problem feels.

We can also help children view their mistakes as helpful. The red pen, contrary to their belief, isn’t the enemy — when students understand how to deal with errors, red means go. One way to encourage that attitude is to take the most common mistakes that the class made on a test or quiz and analyze them together. The more open everyone is about the mistakes they’ve made and how they happened, the less significance any children will place on future errors.

Mistakes happen for concrete reasons. Perhaps the child didn’t memorize all the requisite facts, didn’t execute the steps of a process, or perhaps just ignored the directions. The red “X” is just a simple assessment of the actions that child took — actions he or she can easily fix next time. Sharing that clarity and causality with our children is the best way to teach deliberate practice, instill motivation and help them develop a more constructive relationship with mistakes. In short, this creates the class you and your children have always wanted. We don’t want our children coming in with the mentality of ‘made a mistake – can’t fix it – I’m stupid.’ We want our children to come forward with the attitude of ‘made a mistake – where did I go wrong – how do I fix it so I don’t go wrong again?’


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