Keep an open mind: view mistakes as teaching tools, not mini failures

In the midst of the back to school messages, ice cream socials, and school tours, take time to put the year in perspective.  Students are on a journey, not participating in a race for success.  Yes, there will be some successes.  But there will also be plenty of mistakes and some failures.  That will be tough for gifted and talented students to deal with, especially if the student is a perfectionist.  As motivational expert Carolyn Coil observes in her book, Motivating Underachievers, “schools do not give students the message that failure and mistakes can be positive learning experiences…. Instead, failure is something to be hidden…or glossed over as we go on to the next concept.”*

Some are trying to change this mindset in teachers and other school staff.  In his book, How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough described a chess coach who used failure as a teaching tool, reminding students that it was part of the learning process, not a badge of shame.  The chess coach told Tough:  “I try to teach my students that losing is something you do, not something you are.”**

This point is central to her instruction.  Many of her students are minorities (a fair number come from impoverished neighborhoods) and are used to experiencing failure.  The chess coach does not want loss, mistakes, or strategic errors to define them so she pushes her students to deeply analyze each chess game, using the mistakes as teaching tools, getting to the bottom of why the errors were made.  That’s strong problem solving or as Tough calls it, “how to think,” a flexible mindset open to growth.   As Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s research has indicated, teachers and students with flexible mindsets make greater gains academically.

Tough’s chess coach turned a mistake into a positive—a process for gaining new strategies and reinforcing old ones.  And that fosters resilience and persistence, key traits that students need on their academic journey. There can be serious consequences, however, when teachers look at mistakes negatively.  Harping on mistakes creates a hostile classroom climate and as neuroscience shows, that response may induce increased levels of cortisol in students.  Bottom line:  anxious students don’t learn.

Not analyzing mistakes also puts students at risk.  At one of the schools at which I taught some teachers would give students pretests to determine flexible groupings.  Invariably, a gifted or talented student would not do well on the test and I would get a call from a parent and have to check it out.  Some teachers threw out the pretests and that posed some serious problems for the student.  If the teacher failed to analyze the errors, the student had no idea of the nature of his mistakes.  Moreover, if a gifted child consistently made certain types of errors, I’d suspect a learning disability.  That would be impossible to evaluate without evidence.

Think about the learning opportunities from analyzing mistakes.  Remember watching toddlers manipulate pieces of a puzzle to ascertain the right fit?  We let them solve the problem.   Students enjoy identifying errors; to some, it's like playing a game.  Ask gifted elementary students what’s wrong with Ptolemy’s World Map and they’ll jump in with enthusiastic responses. Same with peer edits.  Consider the fact that students test hypotheses in science lab year after year.  So much can be learned from “errors” or trial and error.

Sadly, many famous and successful individuals have been called a failure at some point.  According to Coil, “when Winston Churchill was 16 years old, his teacher wrote on his report card, “this student shows a conspicuous lack of success.”  And we are all familiar with stories about how many trials Thomas Edison conducted before his light bulb worked.

Success, failure, mistakes—they are all a part of the process—the learning process. They can give us invaluable insights as we build positive learning environments in 2013-4!

*See, Coil, Carolyn, Motivating Underachievers

** See, Tough, Paul, How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

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