It All Starts With You
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” – Robert Browning.
Browning’s narrator wasn’t talking about a classroom in this quotation, but he was talking about unrealized potential and unfulfilled dreams. Too many of our students grasp, fail, and stop reaching. That’s what the mistake-friendly classroom and a growth mindset approach to education is all about—helping students to realize their potential and keep reaching for that task mastery that’s just outside their grasp.
In the mistake-friendly classroom, both students and teachers appreciate the necessity for getting it wrong before getting it right. They embrace challenge. They share ideas, collaborate, revise, all in a spirit of curiosity and “reach exceeding grasp.”
I understand that it takes time to reach this point. It takes effort and change, but the effect on the lives of your students – and possibly yours – can be profoundly transformative. There’s no doubt that a growth mindset can help your students become better writers and mathematicians, but once a person is able to truly relinquish a fear of failure and “messing up,” the world is a little larger and full of possibilities.
In this post I’ll offer a few general suggestions for ways to incorporate a growth mindset into your pedagogy and move towards a mistake-friendly classroom.
It starts with you.
I’ll begin with the most obvious person: you, the teacher. Talk about your mistakes with your students, and openly acknowledge when you make one. Don’t say “Oops,” or “Silly me,” or the colloquial “My bad!” Move straight into pinpointing what you did wrong and how you can fix it, and avoid value judgments.
Reconsider the role of praise.
When you give feedback to your students, both oral and written, focus more on the actual task and process they used than on giving praise or condemnation. You already know how effective it is to lecture students about “trying harder.” So I don’t need to tell you not to do that.
I’m not suggesting you should give up praise and encouragement, but prioritizing revision and correction places emphasis where it should be: on the learning task. It also avoids placing value judgments about a person’s worth or ability based on test grades.
More Time for Revision
This diagram in this wonderful Eli Review resource for teachers shows the typical time spent on revision in writing classes, compared to the time writing or discussing. According to research cited, students learned and improved more with greater time allocated to revision.
I know you’re under great pressure to “cover the material” and prepare students for standardized tests. I’ve walked in your shoes. I still think it’s worth exploring, though. Could you shift more time towards revision/correction? As a classroom teacher, I probably let my students escape with more “one-and-done” assignments than I should have. As a homeschool parent, I witnessed my son’s writing skills , and academic skills, in general, improve dramatically because I was able to focus on mastery and revision rather than “coverage” and “moving on.”
Our rule was that unless he earned a B or higher, we didn’t “move on.” We taught until he had mastered the material, which I fully realize would be impossible in a typical public school.
Don’t Penalize Re-Takes
This might be easier said than done, and I completely understand. If you are a public school teacher, your freedom with grading policies is limited. Still, consider ways you could change the perception of re-takes and revisions as “less than.” How can you reward improvement, rather than simply getting it right the first time?
Share Common Errors
My daughter’s former math teacher spent time each week analyzing common errors with the class, in a factual, judgment-free way. There’s something incredibly powerful in “Oh, I’m not the only one who got it wrong.” This lends itself most easily to math class, but could be adapted to any subject area.
Assign Open-Ended Work that requires collaboration.
Our students will need to develop collaboration skills to succeed in the workplace. Social networks and the ability to work together on creative problems is a necessity. Collaborative, open-ended challenges and products require lots of brainstorming and tossing out ideas that don’t work. In this way, mistakes become a necessary part of the process. How could you possibly build that spaghetti structure without making mistakes along the way? You couldn’t.
I hope you find some of these ideas useful, or at least thought-provoking. How have you encouraged a mistake-friendly classroom? Share your practices, tips, tricks, criticisms, whatever you like.
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