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How to create a mistake-friendly classroom

Changing the learning culture to embrace failure is crucial to students' future success, says this teacher

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Changing the learning culture to embrace failure is crucial to students' future success, says this teacher

I’ve yet to meet someone who isn’t just a little bit afraid of making mistakes. Be it a small error in a piece of work or a monumental catastrophe, it can be hard to look on the bright side when you know you’ve messed up.

Ask any teacher and they’ll immediately be able to tell you the students who react with tears or even anger when they spot a mistake. They could also tell you those who simply "give up" when they can’t get to the right answer straight away.

The test culture in our schools today does little to dispel this fear. We’ve all heard stories of Oxbridge graduates who have aced their way through exams, only to struggle with the realities of working life. We are at risk of creating a culture that strives for a perfection that doesn’t exist in reality.

In some cases, the effects can be so damaging that they inhibit our choices in later life. So what can we do about it?

I would suggest creating a mistake-friendly culture, starting with the following:

1. Share the idea that ‘wrong’ can sometimes be ‘right’

Psychology professor Carol Dweck is well known for her work on growth mindset. She encourages teachers to advocate a culture of embracing mistakes in the classroom and explains that mistakes help to stimulate our minds and make connections across different areas. It is important that we develop a classroom environment in which mistakes made along the way are seen as positives. On a practical level, this could be done by including a "mistake of the day" in your starter or plenary. Can students identify the mistake and can they explain how to correct it? A by-product of this process is the development of reasoning skills.

2. Provide real-life examples

Think back to the last time you made a mistake. If you’re honest with yourself, it probably doesn’t take very long. Why not share these examples with your class from time to time? Mistakes can lead to some of our greatest achievements. There are countless examples of entrepreneurs who have got things spectacularly wrong along the way. Take the scientist who spent years working on a project, only to find that they had no interesting results. But they persevered and one day noticed something "strange" in their data that turned out to be a major new discovery. Or take the engineer who designed a new structure, only to have to return to the drawing board upon discovering a major flaw in its design. Fixing this flaw would improve the whole design.

3. Set work that provides opportunities to make mistakes

Enquiry-based learning is great for this. Set your students an open-ended question linked to an area of learning, such as "how can we drop an egg from a height without it breaking?" Then stand back and let them investigate. At times, it can be hard not to intervene when we can see students going off course or setting themselves up for a fail. But keep reminding them (and at times, yourself!) that these mistakes are a fundamental part of the learning process and an important learning opportunity.

4. Revisit mistakes and learn from them

So you dropped your egg from a height and it smashed. Fine. Move on from it, identify the problem and improve on it. Revisiting and learning from mistakes helps to develop determination, perseverance and resilience – important soft skills that are highly valued by employers in many career fields.

So next time a child makes a mistake, encourage them to be kind to themselves and to realise that mistakes are normal, inevitable and not the end of the world. They are important, necessary milestones along the way to something greater.

Emily Hunt is a teacher and author based in Bristol. Her book, 15-Minute Stem, is now available. She also blogs about all things science, technology, maths and engineering in education at howtostem.co.uk and tweets at @howtostem

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