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.
1. Treat mistakes as a part of learning
Celebrate mistakes! Every time a student makes a mistake, thank the student for growing their brain. When you make a mistake while teaching, use the opportunity to teach that everyone makes mistakes. Even better, be intentional about teaching that even the best of us make mistakes. There are some great quotes and videos you can use to create a lesson on growth mindsets. Check out these books and websites for more lesson ideas.
2. Make more time to help
Accepting mistakes as a part of learning means planning and preparing for them in class. A teacher recently said to me, “I wish we had a 30-minute study hall at the end of each day so that the students could do their math work in front of me so that I could help them.” Why can’t independent practice with your teacher help be a part of the time spent in class? Why do we leave independent practice to be done alone as homework?
Allowing more room to make mistakes in your classroom means providing more time for one-to-one help. Usually, this means less time for direct instruction and more time for independent practice. Consider using video to deliver direct instruction, shorten your lessons into mini-lessons, or adopt a flipped classroom so that you can spend more time helping individual students during class time. Also consider ditching homework or only give “buddy practice” homework so that students get immediate feedback while completing homework independently.
3. Use formative assessments
We should treat assessment as a way to help our students learn from their mistakes. Ultimately, students should be in charge of their own learning. Teachers should constantly monitor student understanding through formative assessment. Products such as GoFormative and IXL give instantaneous data on student achievement on a given activity or standard.
It is easy to make assumptions about student achievement based on past student performance, but learning is unpredictable. Actual performance data from formative assessments helps efficiently identify student mistakes so that you can spend more time with those students who truly need assistance and recognize which students need more of a challenge.
No problem goes unfixed
By teaching through a growth mindset lens, we strive to create an environment where mistakes can’t be skipped over. We should strive for a classroom culture where there is no excuse for not trying. Though it may sound difficult, the only way to achieve this high bar is to change your role in the classroom. Teachers should no longer be the gatekeepers of knowledge. We should be guides who put students in charge of their own learning. Sometimes this means getting out of our own way and adopting a growth mindset as teachers as well.
[Editor’s Note: See previous Blending My Practice columns here.]