Teaching Opinion

Don’t Prevent Students’ Mistakes, Prepare for Them

By David Ginsburg — January 02, 2012 2 min read
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It’s common knowledge that people can learn as much from their mistakes as anything. And yet traditional teaching methods often deny students the chance to learn from their mistakes by preventing them from making mistakes.

In social studies and science, for example, a lot of teachers tell students how to scale and label their axes when plotting data on a line graph. This prevents students from mistakenly assigning the dependent variable to the x-axis and the independent variable to the y-axis, or running out of room on their paper by going with ones or tens for their scales instead of hundreds or thousands.

Setting students up for success like this may seem like the right thing to do. After all, why let kids experience the frustration of botching something when you can prevent it? Here’s why: such frustration is a precursor to deep, lasting learning. That’s right, students’ grasp of new concepts and skills is often better when they struggle through the process of learning those concepts and skills than when teachers error-proof that process.

I first noticed this in the context of graphing when a teacher did not error-proof the process, and many students placed Time on the y-axis of their Time-Distance graphs. But after lively discussion and debate, all students agreed that time belonged on the x-axis. More important, they understood why it belonged there.

The same goes for other skills such as writing. Students are more likely to become better writers when they get specific feedback about their writing than when teachers show them in general terms what good writing looks like. I’m reminded of a student who couldn’t get why active voice is more powerful than passive voice until her teacher pointed out examples within that student’s own writing.

Helping students troubleshoot their errors like this should be a primary role of every teacher. There’s nothing to troubleshoot, though, if kids never run into trouble. Lesson planning should thus be more about anticipating students’ errors and preparing to help them learn from those errors than trying to develop presentations that prevent all errors. Provide students activities that involve applying information, and be ready to help them when they get tripped up.

Another way of thinking about this is reflected in the common distinction in recent years between “sage on stage” (i.e., lecturer) and “guide on the side.” And with students’ ever-increasing fingertip access to information, there’s an ever-decreasing need for us to be the source of their information. Still, just because students can get information doesn’t mean they’ll know what to do with it. The classroom must therefore be a place where students have regular opportunities to learn by using--and yes, misusing--that information.

In other words, a place where they can learn from one of life’s greatest teachers: mistaiks.

Image provided by GECC, LLC with permission

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