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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Creating Classrooms ‘to Unlock the Learning Potential Mistakes Provide us’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 17, 2016 22 min read
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(This is the first post in a multi-part series on this topic)

The new question-of-the-week (and the first one in this column’s sixth year!) is:

There’s a lot of talk about how we should “celebrate” and “encourage” mistakes and failures. How can teachers do that in the most effective way?

Our dominant culture - in and outside of school - typically views mistakes and failures as things to avoid at all costs. Recently, however, there has been a move to reverse that perspective and, instead, sometimes celebrate and encourage those same mistakes and failures.

I’m not sure if we have to “celebrate mistakes,” but I do believe it’s important for us to help students understand that mistakes are opportunities to learn and not indicators of disaster or a comment on their intelligence. Research has shown that this kind of mindset can lead to improved academic performance.

I do a lesson with my English Language Learner classes where they list the occasions where they have made language mistakes over the previous few months, along with what they learned from making each one. As most of us who have learned a second language know, fear of making mistakes is one of the major obstacles to achieving proficiency. Once my students have looked at the huge list, they are amazed at the quantity of English they would not have learned if they hadn’t made those mistakes!

At the same time we are encouraging these kinds of risks in the safe environment of our classrooms, I believe we need to recognize that “mistakes” and “failures” may not be as widely welcomed in other environments, especially for students of color. Because of that possibility, it’s critical to connect this view of mistakes with assisting our students to develop resilience, which can be defined as “when things are hard, you bounce back.”

Obviously, many of our students have demonstrated in the past, and continue to demonstrate, extraordinary resilience in their lives - by the sacrifices they made in their often perilous journeys to the United States to seek a better life, by many of the extra responsibilities they take on at home in response to family challenges, and by the long hours they often work at jobs to contribute towards household income in the face of economic hardship.

We can strengthen those abilities through teaching the civic skills needed to employ resilience in the public arena and Social Emotional Learning skills for personal/professional spaces.

You can find additional related resources at The Best Posts, Articles & Videos About Learning From Mistakes & Failures.

You might also be interested in a previous series in the column where teachers shared their mistakes and what they learned from them:

* Our Teaching Mistakes & What We Learn From Them

* Making Mistakes & Learning From Them - Part Two

In addition to my above “two-cents worth” on the topic, today’s column features several guest responses from experienced educators Doug Lemov, Danny Woo, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Bena Kallick, Allison Zmuda, Jen Schwanke and Mike Janatovich.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Doug, Danny and Kathleen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Doug Lemov

Doug Lemov studies and writes about teachers. His books include Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College and Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Literacy Instruction. He’s a Managing Director at Uncommon Schools. You can find him on twitter at @Doug_Lemov:

I agree that one of the most important things a teacher can do in his or her classroom is to foster a climate where students embrace the value of mistakes as learning tools. When that exists several things happen:

  • You gain access to one of the most important teaching tools there is: the study of student work--both its successes and its flaws--with focus, engagement and openness.
  • You increase your ability to Check for Understanding. If students willingly share their mistakes with you it is exponentially easier to understand what they did not understand-and to help them understand what they did not understand-than if they are trying to hide their mistakes from you.
  • You begin instilling a growth mindset. The narrative becomes: If the work is challenging of course we are going to make mistakes. If we didn’t the work wouldn’t be worthy of us. So let’s embrace the challenge and learn to value what struggle can teach us.

So, yes, errors are hugely valuable. But your question was about how to build around them.

Everything I know about teaching I’ve learned from watching teachers at work so I’d like to share a video that I think demonstrates some key ideas.

The video is of a math teacher named Katie Bellucci:

EA.CFU.GR7.Bellucci.'Different answers.'Clip2106 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

It begins with her asking her students to show their answers to a multiple choice question on their fingers. When they hold up their answers in unison, Katie says: “We have some different answers out here. I see twos, threes and fours.”

I’d like to point out a couple of subtle things about her technique here.

Her affect is so positive: she shows she’s content to see different answers. This is to say she sees that some students got the problem wrong and reacts as if this both normal and interesting- a positive. She is ‘normalizing error.’ If she’s frustrated that they aren’t getting it you certainly cannot tell from watching and we call this skill of being intentional about your affect in the face of mistakes “managing your tell.”

Just as important she ‘withholds the answer.’ That is, she proceeds to rework the problem but does not tell her students whether 2, 3, or 4 was the right answer. This keeps everyone engaged in finding the mistake. There’s a bit of suspense. If the kids who got it right knew they were right they’d have far less incentive to continue studying the problem (“Oh, I’m all set. I got it right.”) The kids who got it wrong might be distracted by or defensive about being wrong. But Katie signals that understanding the problem is of high interest and who got it right is far less important. So the kids think that way too.

Finally, once students have re-worked the problem and figured out the common mistake, she asks, “Who changed their mind about their answer?” When students raise their hands (demonstrating their own comfort with mistakes, by the way) she continues: “Yeah, hold ‘em up high. Be proud. You just figured it out!” I find this moment beautiful. She praises students for learning from error, for “figuring it out” not being right in the first place. This is a classroom where students are not afraid to be wrong because the teacher signals how valuable studying and learning form errors can be.

You can sense her warm positive affect throughout. In the moment when she reveals the primary error that students made--that 20 divided by ½ is forty not ten--she beams warmly at the class. She’s smiling. It’s a positive moment.

By normalizing error, withholding the answer and managing her tell, Katie builds a classroom with a ‘Culture of Error.’ It’s not just a happy, safe place, it’s a classroom that’s perfectly poised to unlock the learning potential mistakes provide us.

Response From Danny Woo

Danny Woo is a middle school science teacher at San Jose Charter Academy in West Covina, California. He centers his class on the implications science has on social, economic, and environmental justice:

Before we tackle the idea of “celebrating” and “encouraging” mistakes and failures, I find it necessary to acknowledge that we were all born innately curious with an instinctive desire to learn. It should go without saying that learning does not take place without trial and error. Making mistakes and experiencing failure are fundamental pieces of the learning process.

What must also acknowledge that humans are very complex beings, constantly responding and adapting to the forces of our societal construct. These forces can inhibit our most basic behavioral instincts. We do not live in a vacuum. And this has very critical implications to me as a middle school teacher. The children I serve are at a stage in their development where they are not yet fully equipped to effectively manage their emotions.

With this in mind, my number one priority is to create a space that insulates my students from the forces that inhibit learning. Mistakes elicit feelings of shame due to the language commonly associated with failure. Moreover, the feeling of shame is reinforced by the punitive effects failure has on grades. In this sense, before we even explore strategies, we must:

  1. Create a culture where the interaction and language used among students and teachers honors the spirit of making mistakes as learning opportunities and part of the natural learning process.
  2. Rethink our grading systems and assessment practices and make adjustments so their function is aligned natural learning process.

For those of us who work in schools that do not offer us the flexibility in our grading systems, we can still honor the learning process by adjusting our attitudes towards revisions and including student input in assessments. All this said, we still have to deliver our lesson.

One of my favorite strategies is inspired by a Math teacher named Leah Alcala. She developed a warm-up routine called “My Favorite No” where she begins class by handing out 3x5 cards for her students to perform a math problem. Shen then collects the cards and sorts them out looking for her “favorite” mistake and projects the anonymous card to the class as they analyze it together. The activity sends a message that mistakes play a vital role in the learning process and reduces student anxiety as the focus lands squarely on the problem.

I am fortunate enough to teach science in a 1-to-1 Apple school utilizing Google Classroom. With Google Forms available to our disposable, I can send a question out to my class. The program automatically collects their responses, packaging it neatly in Google Sheets. Before I project responses publicly, I block out the names to preserve anonymity while reiterating the type of language we use for constructive and productive criticism. As we examine the response, I highlight the positives and ask students for their input on revision. You know the exercise is effective when you start hearing students say, “hey I wrote that too” or “I made that same mistake”. You can just feel the energy of empowerment in the room as the students can self-recognize the positives in their work, yet feel safe enough to correct their own errors. We always close with congratulating the anonymous student for their courage and bravery, acknowledging that it can be difficult to see your work picked apart publicly even if it is anonymous.

There is something to be said about students having the opportunity to see themselves in each other’s work and knowing that they were not alone. Ultimately, every student walks away with the message that mistakes and failures are welcome if the goal is learning.

Response From Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski

Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski is an elementary teacher in Farmingdale, NY, currently teaching third grade. Kathleen is one of the co-authors of The Two Writing Teachers blog and the co-director of the Long Island Writing Project. She passionately believes that literacy is the key to a kinder, more just world:

How do you create a classroom where everyone feels safe to try new things, to take risks, to see mistakes as a “first attempt in learning” and not a failure? As a third grade teacher, I know it is important to teach my students to read, write, solve problems, conduct experiments, and research historical events. It’s also vital that I teach my students to be resilient and persevere when challenges arise, as they always do.

I recently read A Mindset for Learning: Teaching the Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz, which is a “must-read” for educators who are interested in building a growth mindset in their students through classroom lessons and activities. Mraz and Hertz detail five stances that students need to be taught as they navigate their way through school: empathy, resilience, flexibility, optimism, and perseverance. These five make up a “constellation of stances” which can be taught together to help students understand how to tackle challenges.

Some of my favorite ways to teach these five stances and encourage students to take risks are:

  • Mindset Monday": Each Monday of the year, we discussed the different stances and why it is important to be open to new challenges. Sometimes we would watch a video, such as this one from the movie “Meet the Robinsons.” Other times, we would read a picture book aloud and have a discussion. This was a quick way to build in lessons on growth mindset and establish a positive, optimistic tone for the week ahead.

  • Chief Inspiration Officer: One of our classroom jobs was the “Chief Inspiration Officer”, who would select an inspirational quote and write it on our glitterboard each morning, then share it at the Morning Meeting. Filling the room with quotes about perseverance and work ethic added to our collective beliefs about effort and optimism.

  • The Marshmallow Challenge: Early in the year, students took part in this challenge in groups of three to try to make the tallest structure. This activity led to discussion about frustration, flexibility, perseverance, and teamwork. It also tapped into STEM skills. We could refer back to the Marshmallow Challenge at times when we were learning challenging material and needed to think about the skills that help us keep going.

  • Teacher as Model: Students are always watching us. As a teacher, I model attempting new lessons and new-to-me technology tools. Students see that my first attempt isn’t always smooth or perfect and they are able to see me as a learner, too. I work to model a positive, enthusiastic view of learning and also show that mistakes are part of the process.

Our class glitterboard!

If we can teach our students to believe in themselves and be optimistic, to persevere when challenges present themselves, to be flexible in their approach, and resilient when they have a setback; if we can teach our students to care about others’ feelings and be understanding of differences, then we are doing our part to shape students who will build a (much needed) better world. Teachers can do this while integrating growth mindset lessons into the existing curriculum. They can intentionally select books, videos, and activities that help build students’ understanding that mistakes and failure are a necessary part of the learning process.

Response From Bena Kallick & Allison Zmuda

Dr. Bena Kallick is an international consultant providing services to school districts, state departments of education, professional organizations, and public agencies throughout the United States and abroad. Bena Kallick co-authored with Art Costa Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind and Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum (ASCD 2008). She is co-authoring a new book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning and Habits of Mind with Allison Zmuda that will be published by ASCD in January 2017.

Allison Zmuda is an education consultant specializing in learning that is challenging, possible, and worthy of the attempt. Zmuda began her career as a public high school teacher in Newtown, Connecticut. Her passion for her students combined with her innovative spirit resulted in the writing of her first book, The Competent Classroom (2001). She continued to write, penning nine more books including Students at the Center: Personalized Learning and Habits of Mind that will be published by ASCD in January 2017. In addition to her books, Zmuda provides personalized learning insight on her website, Learning Personalized, which features ideas, resources, and interviews to inspire at the classroom, school, and district levels:

Unfortunately, in the tight economy of time and grading practices, students do not see failure as an opportunity to return to the work and improve it. Instead, they see it as a final judgment and move on to the next piece of work. “Celebrating” or “encouraging” mistakes and failures seems to be the wrong way to rectify this fixed mindset.

Let’s just assume that making mistakes and failing to do what we are trying to do is a signal for reflection and self-discovery. How can teachers encourage students do that in the most effective way?

To answer that question, we need to look at the type of work students are engaged in and then the clarity of roles for both student and teacher.

The Role of the Student

When students are faced with a messy problem, challenge, or idea, experimentation is a natural part of learning. When a learner is committed to figuring it out and is invested in the challenge -- getting to the next level of a video game, figuring out how to do a 360-degree spin on a skateboard, creating a musical phrase -- the learner is committed to the task because it is both difficult and joyful.

The role of the student with these tasks is to leverage the development of their Habits of Mind:

- What questions am I asking about this project?

- How am I persisting along the way?

- What am I learning from this experience that might help me for future learning?

- How can I think flexibly to reconsider my strategy/approach?

The Role of the Teacher

The role of the teacher is to provide quality feedback. Feedback is designed to give information about what a student did and didn’t do in light of a performance goal or learning target.

If the feedback is precise, timely, and nonjudgmental -- even if the student is not doing as well as he or she might like -- there is an inherent sticktuitiveness. Students see the results of their actions because there is an acknowledgement of success and clarity on what went wrong which creates an urge to go after it again and take another action.

Where can students receive feedback?

- Mentor relationships (either face-to-face or virtual)

- Peer critical friends groups

- Teacher conferences

When we encourage students to build the habit of remaining open to continuous learning, we are getting them ready for not just the next assignment, but also for success in life!

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders (ASCD). Schwanke began her career as a language arts educator and is currently a principal for the Dublin City School District in Dublin, Ohio. A graduate instructor in educational leadership, she has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications and blogs about her experiences in learning and leading at jenschwanke.com. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke and Instagram @jenschwanke:

I used to be unreasonably fearful of making a mistake. I couldn’t bear the thought of failure. Perhaps because I was a competitive athlete for much of younger life, I equated any mistake or failure to a “loss"-- a dirty, dirty word to my younger self.

I look at it differently now. I find excellent opportunities in mistakes--they give me the chance to learn, to grow, and to get better. Mistakes are humbling, but mistakes are quite fair; they are nonjudgmental little rascals. They happen because something could have been handled better. Besides, I like how mistakes give me the chance to prove, again and again, that I’m human.

I have also learned how to make them fun.

I once worked with a school staff that seemed nervous and jumpy. Their previous principal was quick to scrutinize and criticize their work; he loved to publicly point out mistakes and say, “Now, what are you going to do to avoid this happening again?” This approach had done a lot of damage to the staff as a whole. When I began to understand this about their previous leadership, I knew I had to make mistakes and failure okay. I had to reassure them that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s perfectly fine to do so.

I started by poking fun at my own mistakes.

Here’s how: A few months into the school year, I opened a staff meeting by telling everyone that I’d enjoyed my first few months with them, but I’d taken the chance to reflect upon my failures. “I’ve developed a new hashtag for myself, and I want to share it with you,” I said. “I’m going to tell you about some of my favorite #fail moments.” I outlined each one of them individually. “Remember when I scheduled a fire drill immediately before the assembly the third day of school, which certainly met the state requirement, but in reality fired the students up and made them overenergetic and jittery during the assembly? #fail! Or the time I met with the fifth grade team for the first time and kept messing up their first names? #fail, for sure. How about when I sent you all the database for you to enter your students’ reading assessment data, but it turned out to be an outdated version, which wouldn’t even open on your computers? #fail, again.” By the end of my confessional, I had the staff laughing at the list of things that had made me stumble throughout my initial time with them.

Next, I let them take a few moments with a small group to go over some mistakes they’d made. They had to call each a "#fail.” Again, there was laughter--a relieved laughter, I think--scattered throughout the room.

To wrap up our meeting, I said, “I don’t get bummed out about mistakes. They are inevitable, for one thing, so it’s a waste of energy to lament them. More importantly, though, there is real learning to be had in every mistake we make. Instead of hiding them in shame or trying to cover them up, let’s think how each mistake makes us better.” I also asked them to keep talking with one another when they have a #fail. “I’ll make it a frequent topic of conversation--I’m always willing to talk about something I should have done differently.”

It became something of a joke with all of us throughout the year; anytime one of us flubbed up, we could just admit it, call it a #fail, and moved on. Together, we learned how to readily admit our mistakes while also acknowledging the positive impact have on us professionally.

Mistakes and failure, after all, are not things to fear or hide. They should be talked about, openly and freely. We should do it as adults, and we should teach our students to do it. By starting with ourselves, as leaders, we set the tone for everyone we lead. And by doing it all together, we don’t feel alone--we feel part of a larger community of people who are all just doing the very best we can.

Response From Mike Janatovich

Mike Janatovich is the assistant principal of Harmon Middle School in Aurora, OH, and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

First and foremost, I think it is critical that before we “celebrate” mistakes and failures with students, we must have the conversations to set the tone exactly what it means to make a mistake or fail. We have to be careful with what message we are sending to our students. A student can never interpret a mistake or failure as terminal. It is our jobs as educators to have them reflect, adapt, and grow from these learning opportunities. Continuously, we must build a trust with our students and have the supports in place so students have a full understanding what learning is, and that mistakes and failures are part of the process of learning. If we celebrate (or even just recognize) a mistake or failure and then do not provide an opportunity for students to correct it and move forward, we are doing a disservice to that student.

In our classes and schools, we must focus on the process when we are encouraging or celebrating student performance. What did the student do right? What did the student do that surprised you? What did the student do to think outside of the box? These are all questions to ask yourself when you are providing feedback to a student and encouraging those that made a mistake or experienced “failure”. When we focus on the process and not the product, students will recognize that they are not done and that they will continue to learn and hopefully driven by their internal motivation.

Celebrating mistakes and failures cannot be in isolation. We must also be there next to the student to provide probing questions and feedback to students so the actually are encouraged to move forward. Our goal in celebrating and encouraging must be for students to see that they are learning and that mastery is not necessary at the current moment. If we do this, we have provided students with a safe place to learn and they are encouraged about the process of learning. In our classrooms, we need to focus on the process of learning. The learning process is different for all kids. Celebrate it publically and encourage it privately. When we do this, we create learners that care about their own learning and understand that stumbles in the road can be overcome. If we get here as learners and educators, we are in a good place.

Thanks to Doug, Danny, Kathleen, Bena, Allison, Jen and Mike for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

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