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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Modeling Mistakes to Develop Mastery

By Starr Sackstein — April 15, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s Guest blog is written by Starr Sackstein. Starr is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in New York City and the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed.

Cheeks reddening. Heart pounding. Warmth. All. Over. It’s that feeling when embarassment bordering on humiliation sets in.

Early in my career as a teacher and throughout my life as a student, perfectionism made mistakes unbearable. The fear of failure so palpable that I could make myself sick worrying about it. All the “what ifs” that sucked the joy out of learning and teaching.

Failure was crippling...

But it doesn’t have to be.

All students worry about being wrong to some degree. It inhibits them in both obvious and insidious ways. As teachers, we need to recognize the self-censorship that occurs and develop an atmosphere that promotes risk taking and a positive spin on missing the mark.

Failure as Growth Opportunity

Every great thinker or doer from Leonardo DaVinci to Benjamin Franklin to Michael Jordan agree that with every success came multiple failures and without those failures, those successes wouldn’t have been so glorious or even possible.

When learning is still new and there aren’t negative consequences, like in early education, students don’t fear being wrong. For example, once I read to my son’s kindergarten class. After I did the reading, we went through a question and answer period. As soon as I started to ask the questions, all of the students raised their hands to answer. Without trepidation or fear of being wrong, their arms rocketed up as if by involuntary impulse and even when they answered incorrectly, they were undeterred. It was beautiful.

Honestly, I sat there in awe, thinking about my seniors who fear being wrong so much that their automatic response is silence. Remembering a conversation with my son afterward, I requested he come to class with me to teach my students how to ask good questions. He was eager to help and couldn’t understand why anyone would even need help with that.

So something happens between those days of early curiosity and when my students wind up in my space in the 11th and 12th grades. The system or the pressure or their parents or self-imposed criteria to be perfect that stifles their ability to innovate - pressing for the safer course of practiced competence instead of exceptional creation...

And we all lose out because of it.

Failure promotes success, provided we don’t allow the setback to keep us from moving forward. If we take these opportunities and learn from them, our next try will be more successful.

Risk taking as essential for growth mindset

Great things don’t happen by merely repeating what has been done before; sometimes it’s accidental and other times it’s through great risks and failures that we achieve. We need to promote and support risk taking in our spaces that involve students developing their own ideas free of fear and excited by possibility.

This can only be achievable if we, as teachers allow our own behaviors to model the risk taking mindset.

Good risk taking involves a possible outcome in mind and a level of variability that can be scary. Students watch what we do and if we present them with the same situations day in and day out, we are showing them what we expect.

But what if, we do what we expect and share our trepidation and also share the outcome?

Last year on my way into work, I had this great idea to do a dinner party as our final discussion of Pride and Prejudice. It would be an experiential masterpiece allowing the students to engage in the social conventions of the time period of the novel and we could discuss the themes while participating as characters.

The idea was brilliant.

The execution, well, it didn’t go so well.

After talking it up all week, when it came time to actually do it, I hadn’t worked out the logistics very well and it was an epic fail to say the least. So about 20 minutes into the period, I called the class to attention and announced that this wasn’t working. Everyone went back to their seats and I said we’re going to do a redo on Monday. For the rest of that period, they were going to go back to the text to prepare and I was back to the drawing board to reflect on why it didn’t work and how I could make it better.

The kids were remarkable. Appreciating my honesty, we just moved on and when we did redo the dinner party, it went so well it lasted more than one day.

We need to model for students that success comes to those who are willing to take risks on big, wonderful ideas that have not been tested without fear of repercussion. And if it shouldn’t go right, which it might not, the way we respond will make the difference.

Refocusing Failure Responses

Mistakes happen. That’s life. But they are just mistakes that could be possibilities. If we each create a culture of opportunity and safety in our spaces, students will more likely engage in positive risk taking behaviors.

If we take the fear out of failing and make it fun, then more kids will take the plunge.

Here are some ways we can start to create these fear-free environments that promote a growth mindset:

  • Teachers must demonstrate failure regularly - If you make a mistake, admit it. I promise you won’t lose face or die.
  • Explicitly talk to kids about the way you reflect about your mistakes and how you turned them into something else.
  • Don’t allow negative talk - self talk or between students
  • Try to avoid telling students they are wrong
  • Promote and applaud good efforts, especially when they fail so students develop a new association with failure.
  • Allow for multiple approaches when students are doing work - practice saying yes more than saying no. Let them try. They will surprise you.
  • Don’t have an answer in mind when you ask a question - ask open questions or better, let the students ask the questions. Higher level questions that require more than a comprehension answer.
  • No ideas or questions are “bad” - As a matter of fact, take out value judgement words like “good” or “bad” from the discussion (and “right” and “wrong”) - There can always be better answers, but no one “right” one.

Fear denies many students opportunities to experience awesomeness in their learning. It is imperative that we promote communities that allow students to assert their novel ideas if we ever want to overcome this inherent challenge.

What do you do to foster failure opportunities in your classes or schools?

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.