When we learn to ride a bicycle, we make mistakes along the way, as we figure out the proper balance and speed needed to keep the bike steady and moving forward. We learn from our mistake and eventually ride with confidence.
Why is it so hard to replicate that process in the classroom? I have worked with students ranging in age from 5 to 55 and have rarely seen any of them welcome their mistakes, let alone learn from them. What prevents students from embracing and learning from errors, and how can we create learning environments that encourage them to do so?
We can start by practicing what we preach. We can’t ask our students to look at errors as opportunities to learn if we can’t do it ourselves. Sure, we must hold ourselves accountable to a professional level of competence. But we can meet that expectation and share our own errors and lessons learned, either as a student or as a growing educator. When we are brave enough to do this, students see that errors help drive learning in a never-ending process.
It’s Hard to Walk the Talk When It Comes to Accepting Mistakes
Building that kind of confidence isn’t easy. I see the challenge all the time in my teacher training sessions, where I project questions on slides and have participants hold up their answers.
Here’s what happens every time, without fail: The first question is easy, and all teachers quickly and confidently hold up their letter choice. As I pose more complex questions, they start to shy away from holding their choices high, shuffle through their letter choices as if in deep thought or glance at the choices that their neighbors are selecting.
At the end, I highlight this behavior to the group to point out that talking about a culture of error and actually living out a culture of error are two different things. When creating learning environments where errors truly become opportunities to grow, it’s important to thoughtfully consider both how we discuss errors and how we live with them and learn from them.
Students Can Learn From Others’ Mistakes As Well As Their Own
I have found these four strategies helpful to encourage students to welcome and learn from errors in the classroom:
- Ask students to review test results and identify questions they thought were easy and ones they found difficult. Then, have them analyze the incorrect answers and identify their next learning steps. This supports a mindset that errors are opportunities offering insight into setting goals to help one develop and grow as a learner.
- Use past, anonymous examples of student work that include mistakes or incorrect responses and engage students in finding the errors and deciding what that learner would need to learn to move forward. Invite students to reflect on how doing this independently with their own work could help improve their growth and achievement.
- Take the time to build positive relationships with students. The teacher-student relationship is the key to creating an environment that sees errors as opportunities to learn and fostering a nurturing and safe classroom environment to do so. If students don’t feel comfortable and safe as learners, they won’t welcome learning from errors.
- Give students an active role in their learning. For too long, students have been passive learners, which kills their engagement, inquiry, curiosity and motivation. When teachers work with students to set clear intentions around learning and standards for success, they create an opening for students to take an active role in their learning. When students clearly see the final destination and the pathway to mastery, they can take an active role in learning, to great effect on their success.
When errors are expected, inspected, corrected and respected, student learning can accelerate. It takes skill and practice for teachers to build such an environment, but the impact on student learning is well worth the effort.