Most educators underscore being correct, but cognitive science dictates that students learn from their mistakes.
One of our most poignant memories from our school years goes like this: Our teacher posed a question – maybe in maths, maybe in social studies. Up went one’s hand to answer the question, confident of being right and… bam! One is chastised for giving the wrong answer.
Such moments stick in our memories the most because they hit our least favourite emotions: shame, humiliation, self-recrimination, and that overwhelming sense that you want to disappear. I still recall those emotions.
Well, it turns out that those moments are burgeoning with learning opportunities. Contrary to the belief that most of us have, making a mistake with high confidence and then being corrected is one of the most powerful ways of absorbing and retaining a lesson. Cognitive scientists have carried out tonnes of research on how making mistakes help us learn.
Highly regarded studies by psychologists James Stigler of UCLA and the late Harold Stevenson, as depicted in their 1994 book, The Learning Gap, compared videotaped lessons in eighth-grade maths in several countries. In their studies, they determined that American teachers emphasised specific procedures for solving problems, largely ignored errors and praised correct answers.
Japanese teachers, on the other hand, asked students to navigate their way through problems and then talked about common errors, why they might seem possible and why they were incorrect.
Approval was rarely given and students were taught to see toil and disappointments as parts of learning. The difference, the authors believed, is one reason that Japanese students outperform Americans in math.
“Learning about what is wrong may hasten understanding of why the correct procedures are appropriate,” they wrote, “but errors may also be interpreted as failure. And people strive to avoid situations where this might happen.”
This fear of error has begun to ease with a burst of new studies by cognitive psychologists beginning this century. They have showed the clear benefits of engaging with mistakes — in both verbal and maths tasks. Nate Kornell of Williams College carried out a word-pair experiment in which people were prompted with a word (say, tree) and then asked to pair it a related “target” word (say, oak). He found that they recalled the target word significantly better if they had made an incorrect guess (like maple or pine) and were corrected than if they were simply given the right pairing and asked to memorise it.
Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck revolutionised education and psychology with her work — and popular 2006 book, Mindset — defining two distinct “mindsets”: the belief that one’s intelligence is fixed or that it is fluid and can grow with effort. People with a fixed mindset tend to see errors as signs that they are not good at something. Those with a growth mindset see them as signs that they need to work harder.
Schools which are adopting these methodologies have seen that improvements in performance are closely tied to the error-focused feedback.
“Being in this environment where we are openly discussing mistakes, where mistakes are good, really opened the door for certain kids who had math phobias,”
And in keeping with a growth mindset, students began to see errors as a path to learning rather than humiliation. At a school, a teacher shared students’ errors anonymously with the class. It enabled the students to get bolder about saying ‘That’s my mistake! Let me talk about what I did wrong.’ It was amazing. They got past the shy moment of, ‘I messed up.’”
In Berkeley, California, math teacher Leah Alcala saw an identical change in middle school and high school students when she began highlighting what she calls her “preferred errors.” She stopped having test results with grades but indicated the specific areas in a math problem where things took a wrong turn.
“By taking the grade off their test I thought they might spend more time looking at what they got right and what they got wrong,” she explains.
“I wanted to refocus them on actually learning the content.”
Let’s develop the growth mindsets for our students so that they are better equipped for life.
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Adetola Salau; Educator / Speaker / Author/ Social Entrepreneur / Innovator
She is an Advocate of STEM Education and is Passionate about Education reform. She is an innovative thinker and strives for our society & continent as a whole to reclaim it’s greatness. She runs an educational foundation with the mission to transform education.