Early in my career, I got upset and disappointed when students made mistakes in class. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t understanding when I was teaching everything so clearly and putting so much time into scaffolding my lessons. As a new teacher, I worked hard to deliver concise lessons at the front of the room, and I became resentful when students asked questions or did not understand.
My attitude was exacerbated by the fact that there are some students who process information easily and master new ideas quickly, while other students struggle to grasp the same material. I assumed many children were not listening, not taking good notes, or not studying. My attitude made me annoyed when helping students one on one, because I was continually repeating what I had just taught at the front of the room.
This attitude created a very negative atmosphere in my classroom. In my first few years as a math teacher, students cried often in my class. I chalked this up to my being strict and having high expectations. Eventually, my poor attitude toward the learning process became pervasive and manifested itself into anger. I often considered leaving the profession.
As teachers and adults, it is easy to suffer from the “curse of knowledge,” or the incorrect assumption that everyone has the same background knowledge when teaching a new topic. This includes the inability to remember what it was like to learn something for the first time. The older we get, it becomes even more difficult to understand the perspective of a student who is learning something new for the first time and truly struggling.
It wasn’t until the last few years that I started to question my attitude about mistakes in the classroom. In reading Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler I realized the power of making mistakes as a positive aspect of the learning process for my students. According to the book, mistakes help grow the brain. Every time we make mistakes, our brain makes new connections. Additionally, a student’s belief in their own ability changes their brain and its ability to process new information. By adopting a growth mindset—the view that learning is akin to getting stronger—students soon make a connection between hard work and higher achievement.
My students weren’t the only ones that needed to embrace a growth mindset; I did as well. My own attitude toward mistakes had to change, or my interactions with students when they needed help were going to continue to be negative. Additionally, my own view of mistakes was contributing to student anxiety when my job should be to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable failing. Here are some tips for adopting a growth mindset in your own classroom.