As September approaches and students return to the classroom many teachers will ask students to set goals for what they’d like to achieve this year. On the list you’re likely to see things like, “make new friends”, “get good grades,” and “learn new things”.
One you are less likely to see is, “make mistakes”.
I guess that’s no surprise. Students often feel shame when they make a mistake. Too often success in the classroom is determined by high marks and correct answers. Mistakes serve to evaluate what a student does not know. When that is the case, mistakes have no positive role for our students.
But “make mistakes“ is a goal I would love to see my students set for themselves! Why? Because mistakes are the essence of new learning! As teachers, as we work to cultivate a growth minded classroom, it is important that we begin to normalize mistakes for our students. As students experience new things and develop new competencies it is inevitable that they will make mistakes. If mistakes and failure are seen as a sign of incompetence and something to avoid (rather than something to expect), our students will begin to avoid the challenges necessary for learning. We must show our students that mistakes can actually help us develop and improve our skills and abilities.
I love the way this middle school math teacher, Leah Alcala, has created a culture in her classroom where mistakes are clearly part of the learning process. I have used her “My Favorite No” strategy in my first grade classroom and it has made a huge difference. Grab a drink and commit yourself to less than 6 minutes to watch this video.
Are All Mistakes Created Equal?
In our growth minded classroom we are teaching students the power of mistakes and failure, but not all mistakes are desirable. Making a mistake can be unpleasant. It can leave you feeling frustrated and disappointed. It can mean you have to start over. We want students to understand what kinds of mistakes are most useful and how to best learn from them.
Types of Mistakes
- A stretch mistake happens when we’re working to expand our current abilities. We’re trying something that is beyond what we can already do without help, so we’re bound to make some errors. Stretch mistakes are positive! If we never made stretch mistakes it would mean that we were never truly challenging ourselves to learn new things. When we make stretch mistakes it is important to stop and reflect, see what we can learn, and adjust our approach to mastering the new skill.
- The aha-moment mistakes happens when we achieve what we intend to do, but then realize that it was a mistake to do so because it is now clear that we lacked some other knowledge that was needed. For example, there is a fire to put out but we don’t have water. We extinguish it with alcohol and then learn -aha- alcohol is flammable!
- The sloppy mistakes happen when we’re doing something we already know how to do, but we do it incorrectly because we lose concentration. We all make sloppy mistakes occasionally because we’re human. A sloppy mistake signals we need to enhance our focus.
- The high-stakes mistakes are mistakes that have catastrophic results. They are mistakes that take place in life-threatening situations or high-stakes performances, like the Superbowl. Fortunately, we won’t run into too many high-stakes mistakes in the elementary classroom!
Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes
Learning from our mistakes is not automatic, but we can teach our students that they are an important part of the learning process. Here are some activities and resources I use with my students to help them learn to embrace their mistakes.
“Made by Mistake” Research Project For this project students get to research inventions that came from a mistake! The project could be done individually or in small groups, as class work or a homework assignment! It’s best for middle and upper elementary students.
To start, I share this list of things that were invented by mistake. My students are always so surprised to see all the items on the list! Chocolate Chip Cookies?!! Who knew?!! Penicillin?!! Thank goodness!!
Next, students pick one item from the list to further research. This Research Project Planner helps them to organize the information they gather. It can also serve as a great support if they have to present their research to their classmates.
Everyone always enjoys learning about all of these great “mistakes”! This research project is one of the activities in my Growth Mindset Lessons and Activities Bundle.
Read alouds are another effective and easy way to reinforce the message that it’s okay to make a mistake. There are lots of great books out there that deal with the topic but here are three that have really resonated with my students.
In the text Beautiful Oops! Children learn an essential life lesson: It’s OK to make a mistake. In fact, hooray for mistakes! A mistake is an adventure in creativity, a portal of discovery. A spill doesn’t ruin a drawing—not when it becomes the shape of a goofy animal. And an accidental tear in your paper? Don’t be upset about it when you can turn it into the roaring mouth of an alligator.
Ramon is a boy who is passionate about drawing in Ish. One day a remark by Ramon’s older brother, Leon, turns Ramon’s carefree sketches into joyless struggles. Luckily for Ramon, though, his little sister, Marisol, sees the world differently. She opens his eyes to something a lot more valuable than getting things just “right.” Ramon learned to look at things in a whole new way rather than be stifled by his “mistakes.”
In The Most Magnificent Thing an unnamed girl has a wonderful idea to make the most magnificent thing.But making the magnificent thing turns out to be a challenge. The girl tries and fails, gets really mad and quits. But after a while she comes back to her project with renewed enthusiasm and manages to get it just right. This text explores the the feelings of frustration when mistakes are made while at the same time reassuring children that it’s okay to make mistakes.
After reading and discussing with students how making mistakes are actually normal and valuable learning opportunities if we embrace them, my friends have the opportunity to “make mistakes” in this learning extension. I created this maze activity as an opportunity for growth minded students to stretch themselves, reflect, and learn during a challenging task. This maze activity is one of the resources in my Growth Mindset Lessons and Activities Bundle.
Finally, if your students are like mine, music is an awesome vehicle that makes learning stick. Students love the song “Try Everything” by Shakira.
The song gives people permission to make mistakes along the way by recognizing that mistakes are part of learning, especially when you are trying out something new.
Our students may come to us feeling nervous to make a mistake and ashamed when they do. As teachers we must normalize mistakes in our classroom. Once students can understand that mistakes are an expected and important part of the learning process, they will be more willing to accept challenges and persevere through difficult tasks. If we can change the way they think about mistakes, we have given them a gift that will serve them greatly for years to come!
Want to learn more about teaching growth mindset? (click the image to go to the post)