The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom
As the school doors swing open to welcome the start of another year,
both teachers and students will have goals: to inspire a class, to learn
new things, to get good grades.
What probably won’t be on that list is to make a mistake — in fact many. But it should be.
Why? Because we’re raising a generation of children — primarily in
affluent, high-achieving districts — who are terrified of blundering.
Of failing. Of even sitting with the discomfort of not knowing something
for a few minutes.
If students are afraid of mistakes, then they’re afraid of trying
something new, of being creative, of thinking in a different way.
They’re scared to raise their hands when they don’t know the answer and
their response to a difficult problem is to ask the teacher rather than
try different solutions that might, gasp, be wrong.They’re as one teacher told me, “victims of excellence.”Why is this? Because success in school is too often defined as high
marks on tests. And if results are all that matter in education, then
mistakes play no positive role. They are only helpful if we believe that
the process of learning — which inevitably must include the process of
erring — is just as, or more, important than getting to the correct
answer.A cornerstone of Dweck’s research is the concepts of fixed mindsets and
growth mindsets. Those with fixed mindsets, as Professor Dweck says,
believe people are good at something — either good at math or music or
baseball — or they’re not. For those with a fixed mindset, mistakes
serve no purpose but to highlight failure.Those with what Professor Dweck calls growth mindsets — who believe
that some people are better or worse in certain areas but we can all
improve and develop our skills and abilities — are much more likely to
be able to accept mistakes because they know they’re part of learning.It’s a big task. But over time, I think we can teach students how to
shift the prism at least slightly, so they look at mistakes not as
something to be dreaded and avoided, but as an inevitable — and often
very helpful — part of learning.
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