Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mistakes can be a good thing.

Last month my two year old watched as I took two plates out of the dishwasher at the same time in one hand. Crunch. I chipped the bottom one as I smacked the top one onto it. She noticed and made my mistake very clear to me. I let her know that yes, I made a mistake. I should have taken out each plate separately. Then I said to her that every time we make a mistake we can learn a lesson from it.

It is so important to remind students that making mistakes is acceptable. I have always felt that we learn far more from our mistakes than our successes. Students feel more and more pressure every year to make no mistakes and to have the best grades. They worry about getting into "the perfect college" and having the "perfect record."  Their focus is on a product and not a process. They have let their value as people get caught up in a number or letter rather than the journey of learning.

For years I coached and I always felt that the teams that had "perfect records" (no losses) actually had more problems ahead of them than those who lost games. When we lost a game it was often because we made mistakes (and sometimes because the other team simply was much better). Yet, those mistakes gave us a clear focus for making adjustments, for practicing more effectively, and perhaps most importantly, for giving us the tools for dealing with disappointment.

In the same vein, making mistakes in class gives us an opportunity to examine our approaches and practices in more detail. I do not simply mean that students make mistakes. I make mistakes. I use them as opportunities to remind students that all of us are growing and learning all the time. When I first started teaching I worried when a student asked a question and I didn't know the answer. I felt like she expected me to know everything because I was the teacher. Of course, that's how I felt about my teachers when I was in school. Thankfully, I learned that it was perfectly fine to model continued learning. I do not have to know everything and I do not have to have students believing (falsely) that I do. We can explore answers to questions together. We can explore the process together. We can make mistakes along the way together. How liberating!

Of course it is important to try to anticipate mistakes that can put one in danger and to choose paths judiciously. I hope that I model to my students that they can venture into discussions and test out ideas. They may make mistakes or they may create new avenues of interpretation. If we don't challenge ourselves and, if we are unwilling to make and learn from our mistakes, we simply stagnate.

Every time my daughter sees the chipped plate she reminds me that I made a mistake. Yes, I did, and I know that she is watching and learning from everything I do. I am learning, too.