My music teacher’s name was Mrs. Green. I’ll call her that, anyway, because I can’t remember her real name. Wasn’t there always a Mrs. Green at school, though? I was a shy kid, too self-conscious to sing in front of anyone.
On that day, though, Mrs. Green made us take turns singing solo in class, some sort of “pre-audition,” as I recall, for the school choir. I have no idea what I sang, but what I do remember is a kid giggling and mouthing the words “Out of tune!” to a classmate after I’d finished, then a whole group of them giggling some more.
That was it for me. When the time came to sign up for chorus the following year, I didn’t, too afraid of the possibility that I might be asked to sing another solo. Someone might laugh at me again. I might look stupid. I might sing off-key again, without the Bee Gees there for harmony. I might “get it wrong.”
I was a very average singer, nothing special, so it was hardly a grand tragedy. It didn’t ruin my life. Still, though, who knows what might have come of that opportunity if I’d felt brave enough to add my name to the choir sign-up list? The experience might have given me more confidence, at the very least. I’d have learned more music, made new friends, and enjoyed the camaraderie of the school choir. I let opportunity slip away because I was afraid of making a mistake, and afraid of what that mistake might say about me.
What’s Your Story?
What about you? I’ll bet every one of you remembers a time when you wanted to “go for it,” but didn’t, because you were afraid of singing off-key or not making the team, or getting it wrong and looking stupid. Remember how it felt?
Now think about your students for a moment, their potential and their unique gifts. Picture their faces. Now, ask yourself this question: Does your classroom encourage, or discourage, students from taking chances, even though they might make mistakes and fail? Are they afraid of giving the wrong answer and looking “dumb” in front of you and their classmates? We all know that being afraid to risk failure can hold us back in life and deny us opportunities for growth and “big picture” learning. When we narrow our focus, though, to the actual “small picture” academic learning that we want to happen in our classes every day, research suggests that making mistakes on the road to mastery actually improves some learning outcomes.
Mistakes Help Us Learn
In a famous experiment described in a 2009 Scientific American article, students who made mistakes before reaching a correct answer were later able to recall the answer more accurately than those who reached the correct answer without first making incorrect guesses/mistakes. So making mistakes actually resulted in better memory performance. I think this makes sense to all of us, anecdotally, even without the research. Knowing this, how do we make our classrooms and our pedagogy more “mistake-friendly”? The fear of “getting it wrong” and looking foolish is embedded so deeply within ourselves and our culture, that in order to change it and help our students feel less afraid of making mistakes, we must name the problem and work to change it.
Growth Mindset: Not Just a Buzzword
This leads me to the concept of Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” versus “fixed mindset.” I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “growth mindset” a number of times, and maybe you even consider it nothing more than an overused educational buzzword, a flavor-of-the-month in professional development. Even Carol Dweck has warned that her original growth mindset theory has been misunderstood and misused. Bear with me, though. “Growth mindset” can be a very liberating concept, especially for our students.
If you’re not yet familiar with the theory of growth mindset, here it is, in a nutshell: People who believe their intelligence and abilities are fixed and unchanging have a “fixed mindset.” When they fail at something, they tend to give up more easily because they believe they’re “not good at” math, writing, or whatever task they failed. Those who have a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, seem to believe that their intelligence and abilities can change over time, with effort. Not surprisingly, they tend to be more persistent and successful, because failing a test doesn’t mean they are permanently bad at math or writing or programming, just that they need to try again, or take a different approach.
Having a fixed mindset isn’t exactly the same thing as being afraid to risk mistakes. I certainly didn’t think, “I must have a fixed mindset,” when those kids laughed at me in music class, back in seventh-grade. It must have shaken my confidence, though, made me fear that I might be simply incapable of carrying a tune, and that is a fixed mindset.
On the other hand, if I, or you, had been taught and coached towards a growth mindset, maybe that one perceived failure wouldn’t have discouraged us from trying again. More specifically, could learning about a growth mindset, and experiencing a classroom where mistakes are treated as vital steps on the path to mastery, encourage students to attempt more, risk more, and learn more?
Stay Tuned for More!
In this series of posts, I’ll share some specific ideas on how to help your classrooms become places where mistakes are less shameful and stigmatized. This won’t happen by simply repeating a cliched phrase such as “Learn from your mistakes!” I believe it can happen if you reflect on your interactions with students — both in graded work and in class discussions. I hope you’ll share your ideas and feedback, as well. We can all learn from each other, regardless of subject matter or grade level.
My next post will give you ideas for how you can help your students understand and apply “growth mindset” to their own lives and learning, in the classroom and in the outside world. I’ll share a few ideas for projects, assignments, and lessons on growth mindset and the important, and usually unappreciated, role mistakes play in learning.
Okay, I shared my “fear of failure” moment. Now it’s your turn to share yours! I’d also love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this topic, in general. So add your comment, and then go listen to four minutes of Bee Gees bliss, because you, teachers and heroes, have earned it!
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