Embracing mistakes

The team at Lunebase continue to develop their surfskate skills. The process involves getting knocked down, dusting off, and getting back up again. A period of reflection of what went wrong. And when we’re feeling brave enough – having another go, until, eventually, we nail it.

For many of us, the issue with making mistakes is that they appear to be a reflection on ourselves. In fact, David Elkind’s classic description of an “imaginary audience” may not be so imaginary these days. Social media means that we often feel as though we are under scrutiny no matter what we do. We may be only keen to show the “highlight reel”  of our lives, a perfectly curated version of ourselves – but this means hiding the mistakes we make along the way.

This cycle of learning through mistake-making is well recognised. In her 2017 paper “Learning from Errors,” psychologist Janet Metcalfe claims that avoiding or ignoring the mistakes children make at school appears to be the norm in American classrooms—and it may be preventing children from achieving their full potential.

Read on for our tips on how to integrate mistake-making into your opportunities for growth:

  • Fail first, then learn: In another study, researchers in Singapore identified the value of “productive failure” in learning. They separated seventh grade mathematics students into a “direct instruction” group and a “productive failure” group. The “productive failure” went on to significantly outperform their peers in complex problem-solving and flexibility.
  • Be wrong, be confident: If productive failure appears to enhance learning, so does overconfidence. Multiple studies suggest that the more confident you are in the wrong answer, the more likely you will remember the right answer after you are corrected. In one study, students answered questions on a quiz and rated their confidence level in each of their answers. Then they were given feedback on their incorrect answers. Researchers discovered that students were more likely to correct their initial errors during a final test if they had been highly confident in them.
  • Adjust the learning context: “Let’s try this another way.” In the same study of fourth to sixth graders’ mistakes, emotions, and coping strategies, researchers suggested that the context for learning may be important. Students may find it more emotionally challenging to work in a small group when they’re having difficulty, and may be better served by working privately. So consider providing options to kids who may need a little space to flounder.
  • Encourage persistence: “Keep trying. Don’t give up!” A 2017 studydemonstrates that when adults model persistence in working toward a goal, infants as young as 15 months tend to mimic that behaviour. Persistence can be learned. As teachers, we have a lot of power to influence our students’ efforts by sharing our own vulnerability and identifying our own self-conscious emotions, our stops and starts during problem solving, and our commitment to keep going. Students who engaged in the “regret and repair” style of coping still felt guilt when they made mistakes, but more importantly, they continued to engage and keep trying – while also being gentle with themselves.
  • Model self-compassion: “Be kind to yourself when you’re confused; it’s okay.” If we model and normalize the ups and downs of learning with our students, we can also share the power of self-compassion. They can learn to think: “This is tough, and I don’t get it. I’m not alone here; other people get confused just like me, and I’m going to cut myself some slack. It’s okay to not know the answer right now.”
  • Focus on resilience: “Even though this is tough, you will find your way.” When researchers reviewed over 38 studies of resilience in response to failure, errors, or mistakes, they found that more resilient individuals had higher self-esteem, lower levels of perfectionism, and a more positive way of explaining past events (eg. “I failed the test, but I know now that I must study more for the next test”). However, having high academic self-worth and practicing emotional suppression in the face of mistakes were not linked to resilience.

If teachers can help their students focus on skills and strategies that enhance resilience, students will learn to cope better, recover more quickly, or at least start heading in that direction. These are tips and techniques that translate well into other relationships, such as mentorship or leadership in the workplace.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that American teachers and students tend to avoid talking about mistakes at school. However, there are good reasons to rethink our approach to mistakes so that we can help our students to flourish – both academically and emotionally.

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