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Education Opinion

Oops! Teachers’ Mistakes Can Help Students Learn

By Ask a Psychologist Contributor — July 01, 2020 2 min read
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Today’s guest bloggers are Jamie M. Carroll, associate project director for the National Mindset Innovation Network, and David Yeager, psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. This is the second piece in a series on growth mindset. You can find the first one here on teacher mindsets and racial inequality.

How can I stop students from thinking that making a mistake means they’re stupid?

The last thing students need right now is to think they have failed. When kids make an error in class, they can see it as a signal that they’re not smart enough and will never be successful. Add the stress of distance learning and concerns about racial justice, and a simple mistake might cause a student to disengage from school.

Research on growth mindset tells us that students who understand that mistakes are a part of the learning process are more likely to persevere in the face of failure. But if educators have a failure mindset—the belief that failure hurts learning rather than helps by providing a growth opportunity—then students may think making mistakes means they can’t do the work. What can teachers do to convey that mistakes are not a problem but fuel for growth?

We asked Brad Branham, a veteran high school math teacher in Columbus, Ind., and a part of the National Mindset Innovation Network.

“The best way to connect with my students is for them to see my face every day,” Brad explains. On the first day of distance learning, he started a YouTube channel and posted videos of himself making mistakes. “I [wanted] to show them that I’m going to put myself out there and that making mistakes is a normal part of learning.”

But wait, aren’t teachers supposed to show students how to get the right answer? Not in Brad’s class. His students are used to getting the answer keys and working backward to figure out the process, not just the answer. This strategy puts students in charge of reflecting on their own understanding of the material to help them become independent learners, which is essential in distance learning.

So he created a video series called “Overconfident Mathematicians” featuring his children, a stuffed bear from a local university, and the animated character Pikachu saying they’re too smart to mess up. But they do. Imagine a “Where’s Waldo” for mistakes: The students know there’s a mistake in there, but they have to find it on their own.

Making mistakes can make you feel vulnerable in front of your students, which is scary. But it can help students realize that mistakes are not a big deal; they’re inevitable if you’re taking risks and challenging yourself to grow. By using mistakes as an instructional tool, you convey to students that mistakes help them learn. This tool can also build students’ confidence in their own skills. When they find a mistake, they realize that they know more than those overconfident mathematicians..

To learn more, you can watch our interviews with Brad and other educators from the National Mindset Innovation Network here. And if you have other great mindset practices to share, please tweet us at @NIMN_UT with #MindsetTeaching.

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