For many of the children I teach, particularly the lower ability/special needs pupils, mistakes are something to be feared; something that seems to prove your stupidity and confirm to everyone that you’ll never amount to anything. It’s Learned Helplessness 101.
I did it wrong. I must be thick.
I’ve lost count of the number of children over the years (mostly boys I’ll note) whose immediate response to a tiny mistake is to rip their work into shreds and ‘down tools.’
And I know I’m not alone. This is a problem throughout primary and secondary schools, and there’s a lot of fantastic work going on in both sectors to combat this ‘destructive perfectionism’, linked to ‘Growth Mindset’ approaches. Educators are talking about failure, and mistakes, considering how we frame this in the classroom so that children see it as a necessary and beneficial part of the learning progress, rather than something negative.
For many children though, we need more than words to really ‘hit home’ with the message. I’ve tried something this week with my special needs Maths group – something that I’d done years ago with bottom set year 6 Maths and forgotten about. Basically, I set them a test but I’ve already filled in all of the answers incorrectly.
At this stage, I know my students and I’m aware of the kind of mistakes that they’re likely to make…so I purposely make the same mistakes, so that they’re immediately forced to think about why this is wrong and find an alternative solution.
As they work, we talk about how great it is that we’re learning from mistakes and gaining high-level thinking skills in being able to explain why certain questions are wrong.
This kind of activity is easy to put together and highly valuable for all groups of learners, in any subject, at any age. And it’s another reminder for our students that we learn so much more from failure than from success.