A simple and effective way to learn from our mistakes

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.

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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. test-3

 

 

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.

QUICK READ: Top 5 tips to build resilience in the classroom

  1. Teach it! So many of us mope into the Staff room and complain about how easily our students give up/quit/don’t even try (my past-self included) without stopping to ask if anyone has ever spoken to them about what resilience is and why we need it, especially when it concerns children who lack positive role models at home. Many Primary Schools and some Secondary School leaders are beginning see the value of a ‘Growth Mind-set’ approach and with this, the need to explicitly teach resilience through models such as ‘the learning pit.’ Whatever age you teach and however you discuss this, it’s important to remind students that fear, difficultly and struggle go hand-in-hand with challenge and growth, and that ‘the only way out is through.’
  2. Give kids an ‘out’ so that they can make a mistake. If, for example, you are drawing posters and you’re faced with a child who repeatedly rips up their work because they ‘don’t think it’s good enough’, I tell them that they can do this only once and then they must use the mistake and make it part of their work.
  3. Instil an ethos of Independent Learning. I like to have the 5 Bs posters on the wall which represent a series of things that students need to do before shouting, “Miss!” These are: Brain, Book, Board, Buddy, and Boss. “Ask three before me,” is something that we say a lot too and the children at KS2/3-age respond really well to this. Often, students will tell me that they ‘don’t get it’ before they’ve even read the task sheet, or because they didn’t listen to the instructions. Instead, direct them to their classmates – this saves you from repeating yourself and it benefits the child who is explaining as they have to break this down into simple terms.
  4. Sometimes you need to refuse help. Harsh as this sounds, some children (especially SEN or low-ability pupils) have been allowed to become totally dependent on adults – they’ve come to understand that if they ask for it, someone else will tell them what to do and even do it for them. This approach only ensures that they’ll never learn to think for themselves or believe that they are capable of anything on their own; that’s simply not good enough. If I think it’s a moment of ‘learned helplessness,’ I might say, “I’m afraid I can’t help you with this one because I know you can do this…” Depending on the student/day/topic/your relationship, you may use a firm tone to reinforce this, ensuring that the student knows what the exact consequences of non-compliance will be; or you might adopt a more humorous, playful tone. Sadly, this is often something that you might only learn after the student has flipped a table over. This is where your resilience comes into play!
  5. Reward resilience. Whether it is stamps in planners, an email to their form tutor or even a quick call or postcard home, praise students who persevere through problems and don’t give in. It doesn’t matter whether the actual work/team project/presentation looks like a dog’s dinner; you’re specifically praising their effort and resilience, rather than their ability, reinforcing their self-image as someone who doesn’t give in when things are tough and achieves good results through hard work.