More on Mistakes

Tess Pajaron, who works at OpenColleges, made contact recetly asking for my opinion on an article by Miriam Clifford on the value of making mistakes.  I’m humbled to be asked.  While I won’t reprint the article here, let me encourage you to take the link and go and read it.

What follows are my comments and opinions on this article.

Ms Clifford makes the following statements:

Allowing age-appropriate mistakes can increase confidence and problem solving  skills.  Mistakes are the basis of application.  They allow for  experimentation.  If we see knowledge as just enough to “pass a course” then we miss the point of  learning.

I think she has managed to distill some very wise thought here that it is worthy of exploration.  I agree with the need for age-appropriate mistake making.  However, especially during the teenage years, how age-appropriateness is determined can make or break a student’s ability to build resilience in learning.  Sadly we are often working with students who tie their self-worth up in their ability to succeed.  Any why wouldn’t they?  Popular culture expects perfection.  Parents expect schools to teach for accuracy (and let’s not get into the discussion about how parents define ‘teaching’ here).  Teachers expect correct answers on test papers based on a time-poor delivery of a prescriptive curriculum.  A great deal of sensitivity, wisdom and experience is needed on the part of the teacher to determine the correct approach for each student when exploring their learning mistakes.  This does not mean, however (and in no way am I advocating) that teachers should leave mistakes to die in the wasteland of missed opportunities.

Differentiation is part of the solution but there is much more that must be considered and carefully scaffolded by teachers.  How we speak about errors has the power to build or destroy.  Clifford acknowledges that “Taking time to engage in mistakes… [is] costly in  terms of time.”  I agree.  But the investment in the lives of the student is imperative.

I tend to be a dripping tap in my classroom, stating again and again that ‘the only bad mistake is the one we do not learn from’.  I want my students, especially my Maths students, to understand that a fear of mistakes breeds a fear of learning.  I remind them that, despite how much they are growing and developing, they do not, and are not expected to, know everything. I try to point out my mistakes with honesty and I encourage my students to talk openly with me and their peers about their own mistakes as part of the process of learning.

Elsewhere in the article, Clifford states, “If we don’t allow students to fail in the classroom we are setting them up for failure in the real world.”  I’m not sure I fully subscribe to that opinion but only because it could indicate that teachers should be providing opportunities for failure (though I acknowledge she goes on to explain that ‘pass-the-course’ knowledge’ misses the point of learning).  Contrived circumstances in learning will never provide the same level of learning and understanding as that which is acquired through natural exploration.  Students must be encouraged to work toward success in every situation. Part of the process is to use errors as rungs upon which we climb the ladder of learning.

I value what Clifford postulates as the reasons why teachers avoid mistakes.  While I won’t repeat the statements here, let me give a summary of my personal opinion.  We, as teachers, avoid the exploration of mistakes by students (and potentially by / in ourselves) because of fear.  We fear the reactions of the students, we fear the repercussions from our academic superiors, we fear the scrutiny of parents, we fear our own inadequacies.  And in some of us, this fear is deeply rooted in our own school experiences (based, as they typically are, on the delivery of a curriculum that existed in a flawed education system).

We also avoid mistakes because of time.  I know that the ‘busyness of the classroom’ can be seen as an oft-touted excuse, but it is true.  Our curriculum has become an over-stuffed comfortable chair that we have sunk into and become surrounded by.  But perhaps it has become so stuffed and so comfortable that we no longer see that is it faded and worn and that the stitching is separating at the seams.  Remember, even the most comfortable chair will become hard and ineffective if you just keep stuffing more into it.  And maybe comfortable is not necessarily the best thing for us or our students.

Are mistakes valuable?  Most certainly so.  I try to embrace them and I work hard to help my students embrace them too.

Thank you, Tess and Miriam, for challenging me to continue my exploration and hone my thoughts on this topic.

 May I encourage others to buy into the discussion?  You comments are always welcome.

You might also be interested in an earlier post from me on mistakes:



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