Teaching Our Students to Value Mistakes: Project Ideas and Resources (Part 2)

Teaching Our Students to Value Mistakes: Project Ideas and Resources (Part 2)

In the first post of the “Creating a Mistake-Friendly Classroom” series, I shared my personal experience of turning down an opportunity for growth because I feared making a mistake and looking foolish to my seventh-grade peers. I also introduced Carol Dweck’s theory of “growth mindset” versus “fixed mindset,” and wondered whether an understanding of growth mindset might have helped me – and couldfranzpost2-2 help our students — overcome this fear of mistakes that holds us all back from academic improvement and personal growth.

In this post I’ll share a few resources, lessons, and project ideas for how to teach your students to think differently about the value of mistakes and their abilities. While it’s important to examine our teaching practices, I believe it’s even more transformative to guide your students to their own “aha!” moments. It isn’t enough for us to understand growth mindset. They need to understand and apply growth mindset to their own academic and personal lives. In this process, your classroom will become more mistake-friendly, and the meta-cognitive lessons they learn can apply to learning algebra, writing a persuasive essay, learning to play an instrument, or any other personal goals.

The Kick-Off

To start the conversation, show your classes this inspirational video, You Can Learn Anything, produced by Khan Academy. It begins with the words “Nobody’s born smart,” and concludes with “You can learn anything.” It’s appropriate and relevant for any grade level, even for kindergarten, because the idea that we only learn through making mistakes is true whether we’re solving an algebra problem or learning to walk.

If you like, you could follow this video with another one from Khan Academy, How to Grow Your Brain. I think it’s important, especially for older kids, to know that science supports the fact that mistakes aren’t “bad,” and that they certainly don’t mean we’re incapable of mastering difficult tasks. Of course, we all want our students to feel good about themselves, but the “mistake-friendly classroom” isn’t primarily about boosting self-esteem. It’s about improving learning and expanding horizons. I like this particular video because Sal Khan does a great job of explaining how the brain improves when it’s challenged, in a way that almost anyone can understand.

Be prepared, by the way, to be challenged by these ideas as you apply them to your own personal and professional life. None of us, not even successful, “all-grown-up” teachers, is immune to fear of failure. You might realize, along with your students, that applying a “growth mindset” to your own life could lead to new opportunities.

Project/Assignment Ideas                       

  • Invite professionals from the community to your class to talk about times when they were failing at something important, but kept at it by focusing on what they were doing wrong and how they could fix it. They didn’t allow themselves to say “I’m just not good at ________.” Instead, they persisted, and they improved because they focused on their process and their strategies for improvement. 
  • Work with your students to identify something they’d like to improve, and let them keep a journal throughout the year to document their progress. They could identify the goal, identify the mistakes they’re making, record the steps they take to fix the mistakes, and finally, document their improvement. 
  • They could interview adults they know about challenges they’ve overcome with a “growth mindset” approach, which means they believed they could improve, even after failure. How about making this into a StoryCorps interview? What an amazing and meaningful project! Or how about creating an online exhibit or uploading their interview to the Smithsonian “Stories from Main Street” project?
  • Create lists of “fixed mindset” statements, and change those to “growth mindset,” instead. For instance, instead of “I’m terrible at _____________________, ask “What, specifically, am I doing wrong here?” Throughout the year, let students “collect” fixed mindset statements wherever they hear them, and allow them to share with the class. It’s important to reinforce the idea throughout the year, rather than in one or two lessons that are quickly forgotten.
  • Choose a person from the Famous Failures video and research that person’s life. Present his or her ideas in a presentation, poster, work of art, video, or poem.
  • Show “James’ Story,” an amazing short video about the perseverance of James Dyson (of Dyson vacuum cleaners). He made over 5,000 prototypes before finally succeeding with the first bagless vacuum cleaner! They could research design engineering as a career, or complete one of the STEM Challenges on the site. There are wonderful STEM resources (curriculum, challenges, free design engineering kits for the classroom) available here.
  • Divide your students into groups, and let them write and perform skits that show fixed mindset or growth mindset.
  • Use your “bell ringer” activities to remind and reinforce “growth mindset.” I found this set of thirty writing prompts on Teachers Pay Teachers for $4.00. It’s very highly-rated, and designed for grades 5-adult, including homeschool. Alternatively, you could write your own, and this works across the curriculum.


Teacher Resources  

  • Mindset Kit – “The Mindset Kit is a free set of online lessons and practices designed to help you teach and foster adaptive beliefs about learning.” There are lots of resources on this site, and it’s definitely worth a visit.


Stay Tuned!

In my next post in this series, I’ll share some ideas for how to change your actual teaching practice to make your classroom more mistake-friendly! If you have any ideas, please share yours in the comments below!

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