Helping students to make mistakes and grow

Written by: Matt Lloyd-Rose | Published:

Turning mistakes into learning opportunities with students and encouraging a growth mindset are useful teaching strategies. Matt Lloyd-Rose advises

“If you don’t have confidence and you don’t have resilience, how on earth are you meant to take the risk to put pen to paper? How on earth are you meant to put your neck on the line and look like a banana in front of everybody else by getting something wrong?”

Elizabeth is a teacher and sees working on “character” as the essential groundwork for academic learning. She continues: “If you don’t take risks, then you will never learn anything.”

From 2012 to 2015 I led a research team at the charity Teach First, visiting schools in the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK.

“Character” was a theme that emerged time and again. Specifically, I heard how a lack of certain attributes – confidence, independence and resilience – was preventing many pupils from learning, and causing a vicious cycle of low confidence, low effort, low perseverance and poor results.

As well as hearing about this challenge, however, I encountered teachers like Elizabeth who were proactively and creatively addressing it. I observed and documented their practice – a process that led to my book The Character Conundrum: How to develop confidence, independence and resilience in the classroom. What follows is an extract outlining how teachers can support pupils to take risks and feel comfortable making mistakes, and how we can establish a classroom culture that welcomes risk-taking and error.

Growth mindset

Growth mindset relates to whether students believe their intelligence is a fixed trait or something they can develop; whether, in other words, they are motivated by a desire to take risks and learn, or a desire to avoid risks and appear successful.

A first step in supporting pupils to develop a growth mindset is simply talking about it explicitly and supporting pupils to understand the relationship between effort and attainment.

This was something I saw in Joe’s year 10 history classroom. He told me: “There’s this idea that I’m thick, I can’t do it, I’m not good enough. So I try to build in all of my kids that working hard is the key: trying and putting effort into things, looking where you’re at and working out how to get better.

“You’re not naughty, you’re not thick – that is not the truth. No-one is thick and no-one is naughty. If you want to get better behaved, practise at it. If you want to get better at your work, practise at it.”

As well as communicating these kinds of messages, Professor Carol Dweck, the pioneer of growth mindset, as well as other experts such as KJ Walton and Professor Geoff Cohen, recommend the following methods:

  • Explain to pupils how the brain works, how it makes new connections and gets more intelligent when working on challenging tasks.
  • Ask older pupils to talk to your pupils about the connection between intelligence and hard work.
  • Ask pupils to communicate the idea of a growth mindset to younger pupils themselves, in person or in writing.

Mistake-making

Talk explicitly about mistake-making and risk-taking as crucial for learning. Intertwined with pupils’ fixed or growth mindsets are their attitudes to challenge and error – pupils need to know that finding work difficult and making mistakes are essential parts of learning.

This awareness, combined with a growth mindset, should (according to Prof Dweck) leads to children saying, “wow, this is when I’m getting smarter” when they attempt challenging work.

As before, the first step is simply to talk openly with pupils about the experience of making a mistake, the discomfort that can accompany it, and the value that error has for learning.

One of Patrick’s pupils told me about the way that he talks about mistakes: “He said when he was young, he used to make mistakes all the time, but he learnt from his mistakes and he got better at working with his mistakes.”

Patrick turned this subject into a major focus for his class and now his pupils talk positively about the subject: “Sometimes mistakes can be bad,” said one, “but not when you are making a maths mistake or something, because you learn from it and that’s what I do. I don’t get really frustrated or anything.”

In a similar vein, another teacher, Becky, told me that she is deliberately “a bit OTT in praising mistakes” in order “to normalise them, and to turn them into positive experiences”.

Jessica, meanwhile, has a class motto: “We Lvoe Mistakes” – pasted in large letters above her whiteboard, complete with its own mischievous spelling error. She also explicitly models mistake-making in front of her pupils, talking aloud about how it makes her feel and how she can learn from it.

Mistakes are opportunities

Turn mistakes into opportunities for learning in the classroom. “I’m a massive fan of children valuing their own and other people’s mistakes,” says Becky, “and using these as learning experiences.”

The key here is taking time to review mistakes with pupils, talk about that experience, and then highlight the learning. After tests, Becky goes through the papers and invites pupils to “popcorn out of their seats to share any silly mistakes and warn classmates against doing similar things wrong in future”.

Lian, meanwhile, celebrates the “Best Mistake of the Day” each afternoon.

“Anytime you make a mistake, Miss always helps us to fix it by showing the class your book,” one of Jessica’s pupils told me. Her class takes time regularly, she explained, to “look at some mistakes on the whiteboard and see what the children have done, where they’ve gone wrong, how this is a good mistake and how we can learn from it”.

  • Matt Lloyd-Rose was a primary school teacher before leading a research team at the charity Teach First. His book The Character Conundrum is a practical guide to developing pupils’ confidence, independence and resilience, offering case studies and teacher/pupil voice. For further information, visit http://bit.ly/2FobVkF


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