Turning Mistakes Into Learning Opportunities
by TeachThought Staff
Today, if you asked me about my most memorable learning failures, I will tell you I am glad they happened. My errors have made me a better teacher and learner. I can now relate to students who have a difficult time understanding a concept. The failures themselves may not have been my strongest point, but what I learned from them was invaluable. Mistakes can be excellent learning opportunities.
It may seem contradictory: to create situations where students will make mistakes purposefully. We might allow extra time for class problem solving or focus on more challenging examples. Errors often result in increased knowledge. Controlling where and how these errors occur is an option. Frustration can result if no resolution and feedback are given after errors are made. A positive classroom environment that encourages students may also provide a good groundwork for allowing this type of learning.
How can we use learning errors to our advantage?
1. Instead of discouraging errors, educators should find ways to support individual learning processes.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford studies motivation and found that rather than praising intelligence, educators should focus on encouraging students to think of their mind as flexible and support individual responsibility. Similarly, Jonah Lehrer, in “How we decide” talks about how educators suppress problem solving and may make students feel that mistakes are a sign of lesser intelligence.
Lehrer suggests relying less on praise and allowing time for students to develop skills on their own. “. . . Instead of praising kids for trying hard, teachers typically praise them for their innate intelligence. . . . This type of encouragement actually backfires, since it leads students to see mistakes as signs of stupidity and not as the building blocks of knowledge.”-Lehrer
2. Accept mistakes as part of the learning process.
Half the battle is realizing that errors can be used as learning tools. The other half is learning to use them correctly. Mistakes can work to our advantage. Some students resort to memorization, rather than risk making errors. But something is lost if education does not allow students time to try things on their own. Many teachers steer away from this model because mistakes take away valuable instructional time. But some new proponents argue there may be something wrong with this model. Perhaps we must reconsider why we aren’t letting students make their own mistakes.
3. Achieving mastery should be the goal.
Professionals are essentially experts who after years of study have learned specifics in a field. But the process of learning a concept is just as important as the concept itself. Why? Mastery produces learning that is meaningful.
4. Use mistakes as part of a discovery process that engages students.
Allowing time for individual exploration will create opportunities where failures may occur, but they can be used as a tool. In a recent talk, Noam Chomsky discussed how education should allow students to search, inquire and pursue topics that engage them. Chomsky believes that education should allow students to discover on their own. Education should prepare students to learn on their own in an open-ended way.
The Khan Academy is a great example of this. Their model focuses on students experimenting to achieve mastery. The Khan Academy is essentially a series of educational videos in math and other subjects. Their aim is to have a student be an expert before moving on to another subject. Using interactive exercises, teachers can gauge student understanding.
5. Focus on self-paced learning strategies whenever possible.
Media can be used to incorporate self-paced learning in the classroom, where students complete lectures at home, and “homework” examples in school. This saves classroom time and switches the focus of learning to problem solving. Students learn general information at home and practice examples in class. Allowing students to make errors in the classroom, rather than at home is beneficial.
At home, there is no teacher or at times, support may be absent to guide students who may give up and not ask a teacher the next day. Salman Khan compares achieving mastery through experimentation to learning to ride a bike. The gaps must be bridged before students can move on to the next skill. You cannot ride a bike without achieving balance first.
6. Technology can turn errors into teachable moments.
Some teachers use student examples on the overhead or power point to show divergent thinking and how students might approach a problem differently. Actually showing mistakes during class (with their names to avoid embarrassment), can make students realize that they are an acceptable part of the learning process. Seeing another student’s mistakes can also help bridge learning connections.
7. Use immediate feedback to reduce frustration.
Bill Gates pointed out that the Khan academy relies on “motivation and feedback” of a learning process. Immediate feedback from mistakes in learning can actually be a powerful learning motivator. The teacher can serve as a resource that helps students find answers on their own.
8. Accept that learning is a messy process.
When attempting one of his inventions, Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed; I have just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” If we want to encourage our students to achieve their ultimate best, we must acknowledge that learning is non-linear. Each learner will have preferences and inclinations. No two students are the same. By accepting this, we allow room for individual differences. By allowing students to make errors, they can better assimilate information to their needs and learning styles.
9. Rather than resorting to memorization, allow students time to practice in class.
They may discover that their weaknesses are just different ways of approaching a subject. Rather than a weakness, their errors can be ways to realize that they are just seeing things differently. They are part of a greater learning process that is individual to each learner.
10. See learners as apprentices.
An apprenticeship is a good way to understand how this model works. An apprentice works for years under a Master until he is ready to complete the task on his own. He is allowed to make mistakes, and even encouraged to do so. After learning the basic skills from the master, an apprentice is often required to design a complex project on their own that showcases their unique skills. Errors are considered part of the process of being a novice. The trainee eventually develops his own style and point of view. After many trials, the apprentice becomes the master.
As James Joyce suggests in Ulysses, a true genius sees all learning as an opportunity to improve and discover. Errors are taken at will. In making mistakes, we can reach new heights and finds our true genius.
“While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.” – Henry C. Link
*previously published at TeachThought.com