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Teaching Opinion

Response: Recognize Students When They Learn From Mistakes

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 26, 2016 18 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a five-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here. )

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?

Part One in this series featured 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.

Part Two included answers from Warren Schnack, Jenny Edwards, Michael Thornton, Annie Ward, and Cathy L. Seeley.

Amber Chandler, Barry Saide, John Spencer, Riina Hirsch, Nadja Reilly, Laura Taddei and Howard Pitler were contributors to Part Three.

Today, Margaret Searle, Diana Laufenberg, Jessica Lahey, Jonathan Cassie, Andrew Miller, Allen Mendler, and Mark Katz share their ideas on the topic.

Response From Margaret Searle

Margaret Searle is the president of Searle Enterprises, Inc., an education consulting firm, and specializes in consulting with districts and schools in the areas of curriculum alignment, differentiated instruction, inclusive education, leadership team development, and training teams to implement RTI. Her books include Causes and Cures in the Classroom: Getting to the Root Causes of Academic and Behavior Problems (ASCD), What Every School Leader Needs to Know About RTI (ASCD), and her latest, Teacher Teamwork, which was co-authored with Marilyn Swartz:

In the movie “Apollo 13" Gene Krantz, flight director of Apollo13, says to his crew, “Failure is not an option” as they fight against time to find a way to get the Apollo crew back to earth. When he said that, did he mean don’t risk failure by trying anything other than proven techniques, or did he mean don’t give up until you have tried every out-of-the-box option you can think of?

Obviously, the mission-control crew had to think creatively and be willing to take huge risks to solve this life-or-death problem. Fortunately, NASA understands that highly successful people are those who learn from their failures by regularly stretching out of their comfort zone. How does this movie scenario reflect what we see in schools?

Think back to your school experiences. Were you rewarded for not being afraid to fail? Probably not. Traditionally, schools have a tendency to punish students who make mistakes by giving them red checkmarks and low grades.

It’s the students who get things perfect the first time who get rewarded most. When asked to encourage learning from mistakes, many teachers have a hard time allowing students to fix their mistakes in order to earn a higher grade. They say it isn’t fair to the students who did the work correctly the first time. What message does this send?

The “one and done” mentality trains students to avoid and fear failure. As a result they become less willing to risk. They don’t want to try harder problems or take harder courses. They are more likely to hide mistakes instead of admitting that they don’t understanding. Fear of failing typically reduces both creativity and achievement and increases the students’ need to validate their own egos, even if this requires cheating (Michou, 2014).

To become a teacher who fosters risk-taking and learning from mistkes, here are a few things to consider.

  1. Make sure students see mistakes as powerful learning opportunities. In the beginning stages all learners make mistakes unless they are doing something easy or already good at. Not trying to learn from errors is the real mistake.

  2. Do not reprimand students for making mistakes and don’t put grades on practice assignments (which should be most of them). I mark areas of strength in green and one or two areas for improvement in blue. Marking too many areas for improvement tends to be discouraging and unhelpful for beginners.

  3. Help students recognize the characteristics of quality work by using rubrics and models for self-evaluation. (If I don’t know what good looks like, I may think I have arrived when I am only half way there.)

  4. Have students identify what is correct and what is not as part of the daily routine. Be encouraging and supportive as you ask students to explain exactly what changes would make their work better.

  5. Make sure you re-teach skills that are weak before asking students to fix their errors.

If we want students to embrace rigor in their learning journey and persist when tasks are difficult, we have to set up classroom environments that encourage taking on a challenge even when we know the initial results may not be pretty.

Response From Diana Laufenberg

For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught 7-12 grade students Social Studies in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Most recently, Diana Laufenberg partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a new non-profit working to create and support student centered learning environments that are inquiry driven, project based and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the Executive Director and Lead Teacher for Inquiry Schools:

Mistakes and failures are tolerated all over the average community - it’s called 7 year olds playing the violin and 5 year olds playing soccer. What happens on that soccer field is painful to watch at times, rife with mistakes and failures - but society rarely, if ever, views it that way. Of course we expect 5 year olds to make mistakes and fail at soccer, on the path to make more sophisticated mistakes and interesting failures. At some point in the story of school we became intolerant of this same process in learning - the celebration of the process of learning. Mistakes and failures are often equated with things to avoid with a negative connotation. Risk taking, trying something you have not done before or something you haven’t practiced enough to be successful at, is at the core of what needs celebration and encouragement. When did we forget that?

Choose your words wisely. Accept each child for the potential they hold, not just a list of deficiencies. Recognize that in order for children to take risks they must trust their teacher. Wrap care structures around children that clearly communicate that they are being supported as human beings in the process of learning. Look at classroom practices that do too much FOR students so as to sanitize the learning experience from any real struggle. Help students develop a habit of reflection in their learning process: what worked, what didn’t, why did that happen, what do you still want to know more about, and what would you do differently if you had to do it over?

Children pick up on the nuance of what is happening in their schools - if all you talk about is achieving some score or level on the test - they will know that is what you value. If you truly value learning in all its flawed glory, then you will find room in your narrative and actions to celebrate the process of learning - complete with its missteps, mistakes and failures.

Response From Jessica Lahey

Jessica Lahey is a high school English teacher and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed:

While “productive failure” and “failing forward” sound like great pedagogical catchphrases, it can be really hard to operationalize what should be the baseline, normal learning experience. We, as teachers, are so short of time, resources, and opportunities to allow our students to screw things up before getting it right that the idea of allowing for multiple tries sounds impossible. Our traditional teaching routines - teach, quiz, test, teach, quiz, test, teach, quiz, BIG TEST, repeat - don’t, in their current form, really allow for multiple attempts to learn a skill, let alone multiple attempts to teach a skill.

The first thing teachers have to do in order to allow for productive failure is up-end their perception of “good teaching.” Step away from the front of the room, put down the whiteboard marker, and not matter how fun it is to be the wizard behind the curtain, stop lecturing so much. I know. I know. I love lecturing. I once private messaged a professor in who had been tweeting about how successful his first foray into small-group, project-based inquiry was going, “Yes, but how do you feel about not lecturing”?

His response?

“I hate it! I love lecturing!”

Now, this professor is a gifted teacher who creates narrative, tension, and wonder in his lectures, but even he acknowledged that the results were difficult to ignore. His students were learning more, and in greater depth, then they did when he lectured.

The lovely thing about changing up his own teaching style and trying something new (something that made him nervous and unsure) not only increased his students’ mastery, it allowed him to model intellectual and professional risk-taking, emotional bravery, and a willingness to fail, all wrapped up in a more successful lesson.

Often, we teach our students much more with our actions than we do with our lectures. I know that my willingness to admit to my mistakes, make amends, and become a better teacher matters to my students. They notice. They thank me for correcting factual errors. They respond to my willingness to try new things with enthusiasm and excitement. And, when I let them know that I’m trying to become a better teacher every day I walk into my classroom, they are far more tolerant of my missteps.

Response From Jonathan Cassie

Jonathan Cassie is the author of Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students (ASCD). Cassie is head of the senior school at Sewickley Academy, just outside Pittsburgh, and has taught history, English, Latin, and game design at schools in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Throughout his 20-year career in independent schools, he has been a student and practitioner of innovation and change in education:

Ask any student who regularly plays video games about how the games they love help them learn whatever it is the game cares about and the student will quickly be able to discuss in detail what it’s like to die in that game. If you’re playing “World of Warcraft” or “Mass Effect 3" or even something old school like “Asteroids,” it’s very clear when you’ve made a fatal mistake. You’re done...finished...a ghost or worse. What you do at this point is the critical distinction between making a mistake in a gamespace and making it in realspace. In a game, the mistake that caused your death is (after a fact) celebrated! It was necessary to die to learn what needed to be learned. It was nothing to be ashamed about. In fact, dying over and over again was the essential experience that turned the novice into the expert.

In “World of Warcraft” and other massively-multiplayer online role-playing games, the most difficult to master content sometimes requires that teams of players (numbering as many as 25 players from across the globe) collectively die hundreds of times. Is it frustrating? You bet it is! But it’s deeply productive. This productivity comes from the learning objective of the game and the reward systems of the game. If you’re interested in celebrating students’ mistakes, you’re going to have to think about three qualities of gameplay identified by James Paul Gee that I discuss in my book Level Up Your Classroom. Gee argues that curricula have to be recursive - responding to the behaviors of learners and shapable by the decisions of learners. He moreover notes that curricula should be customizable (within the context of the learning objective), giving the learner a lot of different ways to get to the goal...just like games do. Gamified lessons require that students take risks, win, lose or draw. Gamified instruction rewards productive mistakes, indeed it expects these mistakes. No one learns anything in a game by not making mistakes.

Think about the lessons and assessments you’re going to give this year. How can you deliberately structure your feedback system to give students rewards for making and then learning from mistakes? What would it be like if for a unit of instruction, the only grade a student could earn is an A, representing that they have achieved mastery of that unit? What would it look like if you created a leaderboard in your classroom that represented not “achievement,” but rather “overcoming obstacles” or “grittiness” or some other measure of engagement? These questions lead to answers that speak to celebrating mistakes.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller (@betamiller) is an instructional coach and educational consultant who focuses on project-based learning, assessment and student engagement. He is on the faculty for both ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. He is the author Freedom to Fail and also writes regularly for Edutopia and ASCD:

There is a lot of potential to create a culture in the classroom where failure is seen as a valuable learning opportunity rather than the end of learning. Many things get in the way of this, but one of the most powerful ones that get in the way is traditional grading. Sometimes, we grade everything, or are forced to do so because of district policies. If you are grading everything, you may inadvertently be working against the culture of “failing forward.” If I am a student who wants to take risks in a project or assignment, but am punished with grades in that risk, then I may be more unlikely to take risks or even try again. If you want to celebrate risk taking and failure as part of the learning process, mitigate daily grading, and assign grades on summative assessments.

In addition to reforming grading practices, teachers should embrace more long-term assignments, PBL, design challenges and the like. These units of instruction focus on authentic work and a growth mindset. They demand that learning will take time, and you will able to try, fail, and be successful. Engagement is the key to celebrating failures and ultimate successes. If what we ask students to learn and do is engaging, they will adopt a growth mindset. Paired with equitable grade practices, engaging and authentic work can create a culture where students long to “fail forward” towards success (see Freedom To Fail, Andrew’s book).

Response From Allen Mendler

Allen Mendler is an educator, school psychologist, and author who resides in Rochester, N.Y. Dr. Mendler has worked extensively with children of all ages in regular education and special education settings; and youth in juvenile detention. Mendler’s books include Connecting With Students (ASCD), When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game (ASCD) and The Resilient Teacher: How do I stay positive and effective when dealing with difficult people and policies? (ASCD):

Mistakes are reminders that none of us are perfect and that it takes courage and persistence to try to get better at anything worthwhile. Teachers should consider having a “3 R’s” policy “Re-do, Re-take, Revise” to encourage improvement. Let students know that while you expect their best effort on all assignments and tests, they can re-do or revise an assignment and re-take a test until you or they are satisfied that their performance is about as good as it can be for now. Since some students may purposely put off doing their best initially, a small deduction in grade (i.e. 5 points less for each subsequent revision or re-take) can be included. Such a policy makes it impossible for any student to fail unless they quit, especially if at least a portion of each student’s grade is based on showing steady improvement.

Children are always told that it is okay to make mistakes because that is how they learn. Yet we often reward only the best answers or performances. If we want students to really believe that we are encouraging them to learn from their mistakes, then we need to actually point out the benefits when we see them. Get in the habit of explaining what mistakes teach. Here is a suggested sequence for explanation:

  1. You (student) show a good understanding of (Identify a strength in the work that showed the kind of thinking you were looking for).

  2. Your mistake is a good reminder to (Explain or give new information that promotes better understanding).

  3. To be sure you now better understand, I’d like you to do a few more for practice (Give specific practice problems).

  4. Offer congratulations when improvement is shown (i.e. Way to go!).

Response From Mark Katz

Mark Katz, Ph.D., is a clinical and consulting psychologist and author of Children Who Fail at School But Succeed at Life. For over 30 years, he has served as the Director of Learning Development Services, an educational, psychological and neuropsychological center in San Diego, California. He is a past recipient of the Rosenberry Award, a national award given yearly by Children’s Hospital in Denver, Colorado, in recognition of an individual’s contribution to the field of behavioral science:

The feeling that we can control our destiny and that our actions will determine our outcomes are among the beliefs we find in resilient individuals who overcame a range of adverse childhood experiences. Researchers tell us they’re also beliefs that can be learned at school. And among the key ingredients on this path to a sense of mastery is the ability to see mistakes and setbacks as learning experiences. Schools and educators can use the following simple practices to help students cultivate that ability.

“Who had a great struggle today?”

According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, rewarding and celebrating struggle helps to foster a malleable or growth mindset. Students with growth mindsets view failures and setbacks as learning experiences. As one way to build growth mindsets, Dweck recommends that teachers ask students at the end of the school day, “Who had a great struggle today?” To help students learn to embrace struggle, some teachers keep a jar on their desk with a label on the front that reads, “Who had a great struggle today?” Next to the jar is another jar containing marbles. At the end of the day, students (or teachers) who can identify a great struggle they had are asked to place a marble in the jar. If you had two great struggles, then two marbles go in the jar; three great struggles, three marbles; and so on. If the class can fill the jar with all the marbles by the end of the week, the whole class gets a surprise reward, compliments of their teacher. The message is clear: in this class, we value struggle.

Expanding on this method, some teachers also keep a second jar on their desk with a label that reads, “Who learned from a mistake today?” Each day, students are asked to remember a mistake that they made and learned from, and to place a marble into this jar for each mistake. Fill the jar up with marbles by the end of the week and the whole class gets another surprise. The message is clear here as well: in this class we don’t fear making mistakes. In this class, that’s how we learn--from our mistakes.

“Notice and Speak Up About Hurts” and “Right Wrongs”

PeaceBuilders is a school-wide prevention model that asks everyone in the school community--students, teachers, school administrators, bus drivers, secretaries, etc.--to model, practice, celebrate, and reinforce six principles:

  1. Praise people
  2. Give up put-downs
  3. Seek out wise people
  4. Notice and speak up about hurts
  5. Right wrongs
  6. Help others.

When enough people follow these guidelines, the entire school climate improves. There are fewer injuries, acts of violence, and discipline problems reported, absenteeism decreases, students enjoy new opportunities to contribute and feel they belong, and--thanks to principles 4 and 5 (notice and speak up about hurts and right wrongs)--everyone in the school community practice learning from their mistakes.

Those wishing to implement any of the above practices are also reminded of the power of modeling. When teachers and others who students look up to embrace mistakes and setbacks as learning experiences, they’re helping these students learn to do the same.

Thanks to Margaret, Diana, Jessica, Jonathan, Andrew, Allen and Mark for their contributions!

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