Mistakes in Education: a reblog

*note: This post was originally posted on a blog I use with my students, but I thought some of my colleagues and readers here might find it interesting. I’m not finished with this topic. 

This week I learned more about how important mistakes are when learning. In class I mentioned how our school system has inadvertently taught us that being wrong is a very bad thing. This has stunted our creativity, our critical thinking, and our playfulness. We’re so concerned with avoiding being wrong that we’d rather not raise our hand or participate in something challenging. Failure is the ultimate shame.  The embedded video is a TED talk by Kathryn Schulz who studies being wrong and its role in our lives. If you’re interested and have 18 minutes to spare, you may want to check it out.

I’m trying to change our attitude toward mistakes and failure starting with this class, and this week only increased my belief that it is a much needed attitude adjustment. Not only did this video inspire me, but so did an encounter with one of my daughters. She’s six, and on Friday after school she started crying. I took her into my arms, calmed her, and tried to decipher the sniffly, sobby story of what was wrong. Turns out she made a mistake at school.

The class was working on optical illusions. Students were supposed to draw boxy, plaid-like patterns on a circular piece of paper. The paper circles were pierced in the centre by a pencil, resembling a flat umbrella. When the pencil is rolled between the palms, the circle spins, and the boxy pattern whirls into a colourful circle. Well, my daughter, not seeing the relevance or the big picture, quickly scribbled a blotchy pattern on her circle. When the teacher gently tried to show her the need for a plaid pattern, the shame of being wrong descended on my little girl. The only thing that reduced her shame to a manageable level was another little girl in her class who immediately volunteered that she had made the same mistake.

Back at home, I tried to convinced my daughter that school was one of the best places to make mistakes. She recently learned to ice skate at school, and she’s getting pretty good. I asked her if she ever fell.

“Of course!” she said with her silly-daddy look on her face.

“Oh no! I said, “That’s a mistake.”

She quickly replied, “No it isn’t. That’s how you learn to skate.”

I let her wisdom sink in and then we talked some more about learning, but I have haven’t been able to shake her innate understanding that learning involves mistakes while at the same time she’s ashamed to make any at school. This is a big problem within our education system. I learned a bit more this week about how deep it runs within me and the system, and I want to be part of the solution. Any ideas? Let’s talk and learn playfully without fear of being wrong.

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