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Getting Students Comfortable Making Mistakes

making mistakes

Maybe it is just me but haven’t you found that most of what you’ve learned in life has come through trial and error? From trying and failing? From making mistakes and learning from them?

I talk a lot about the mistakes I’ve made as a teacher on this blog (Ex. mistakes I’ve made when teaching biology and mistakes I’ve made at the beginning of the school year). Heck, I’ve written an entire professional development course to help other secondary science teachers learn from my mistakes and work smarter not harder.

And while I think it is good to try to help others learn from our mistakes by not making the same ones, sometimes I really think that learning happens best when we do try something on our own and fail.

Why does learning happen best when our students are making mistakes?

making mistakes

Learning is all about growing and changing how we think. We can’t stretch our students’ thinking or their abilities to new depths unless there is a bit of discomfort.

I mean seriously, think about the act of physically stretching. If you are to bend over and attempt to touch your toes, you will most likely experience some discomfort. If you don’t, you aren’t really stretching, because you aren’t pushing past that point of comfort to discomfort where improvement really happens.

It is the same for our students. Improvement and growth come from that little extra reach out of their comfort zone. And getting them out of their comfort zones opens them up to potentially making mistakes.

This requires our students to attempt things that they don’t know how will turn out – and many of our students don’t want to do that. Trying something new and maybe making mistakes requires a sense of both humility AND courage because we have to be willing to expose ourselves to failure.

And this is HARD to do – especially in our current society. Our students are terrified of failing so they don’t try. I don’t blame them – can you imagine how different your childhood and formative adolescent years would have been if there were constantly people surrounding you with cameras documenting every last mistake and potential embarrassment of your life?! It’s no wonder our students have such a hard time with this.

But this is why we have to make it a priority, as teachers, to create a classroom culture where our students feel comfortable making mistakes.

How do we create a classroom culture where students feel comfortable making mistakes?

making mistakes

Just like with getting our students to ask questions if we want them to feel comfortable making mistakes, it starts with forming a relationship with them. They HAVE to trust us first and foremost.

Additionally, we HAVE to make our own mistakes in front of them and show them that IT’S OKAY. We have to model humility for our students so that they can see that there is a difference between humility and humiliation. There is NO NEED to be humiliated when you make a mistake! Everybody makes mistakes. We are humans, not robots. Model this for them!

When you forget to pass something back to them – OWN IT. When you say something a little too harshly that may be hurtful – APOLOGIZE. When you pull a resource off of Google search and it has typos – JUST TELL THEM YOU DIDN’T MAKE IT. When a lab totally bombs because you forgot to check the expiration date on a chemical – TELL THEM. Then lead them in a thorough error analysis.

Our students will never feel comfortable making mistakes if WE don’t feel comfortable making mistakes. You are a human being with real feelings who has a life outside of the classroom and your own issues you are working through. Take off your teacher mask and show them your non-robot-real-human self too.

Additionally, try to avoid punishment when students make mistakes. Give grace when you can and correct always, but refrain from penalizing if you are able. I know this isn’t always possible BUT if you can, this is one way we can consistently change the way our students think about making mistakes to help them not be so afraid to do so.

We want to build up students who are resilient, not tear down our students and leave them feeling defeated.

How do we build resiliency and not defeatism in our students as they make mistakes?

making mistakes

This is the biggest culture shift we are going to be fighting against when it comes to getting our students comfortable making mistakes. Our students have been conditioned to defeatism rather than resiliency. Due to a BUNCH of sociological things I don’t have the capacity to get into, a lot of our students approach new situations helplessly rather than with energy and fervor.

To build resiliency we need to support our students in their learning and stretching. We don’t just dropkick them off the edge of a cliff and out of their comfort zone. Make small steps to push them little by little, but be beside them every step of the way. And when they inevitably fail in some capacity, support them in seeing how they can learn from their mistakes and try again!

I can’t help but think of the Daniel Tiger song that says, “It’s okay to make mistakes, try to fix them, and learn from them too!” When we taught my son to ride his bike at age 3, we didn’t just throw him on a big-boy bike to see what happened. He started riding a balance bike at 18 months old. He learned how to pedal on a tricycle at 2 years old. On his 3rd birthday, he got his big boy bike WITH TRAINING WHEELS, and we walked alongside him and helped him put the balancing and the pedaling together. A few months later, we took off the wheels but again, we were right beside him. It was a slow and gradual process. And when he messed up, we sang our Daniel Tiger song and walked through, together, what went wrong in order to learn from it.

This is what we need to do with our students. Don’t just start with training wheels. Start even smaller than that with a balance bike.

Now enough with the analogies to parenting – let’s talk about super practical ways to get started with this.

What are some quick-start tips for doing this in our classrooms TODAY?

making mistakes
  • Straight up tell your students you want them to make mistakes and you will encourage them to because that is how they learn.
  • When someone inevitably makes a mistake, CELEBRATE IT!!! Say, “YAY!! You messed up! Let’s learn!!” and go from there with the learning process.
  • Prioritize error analysis especially when it comes to your labs. This is SO IMPORTANT and can often be rushed through. Emphasize this so that their brains start thinking through errors and solutions and learning from mistakes.
  • Start humbling yourself and being honest with your students about your own failures. It’s scary and it’s hard but modeling is the best way they will learn to not be scared of making mistakes themselves!

You can do this, teacher friend! I believe in you. And guess what? If and when you mess all of this up, you can learn from your mistakes, just like you are asking your students to!

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