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The Power of Mistakes: Creating a Risk-Tolerant Culture at Home and School

Educators and parents want their kids to seek challenges and persist through difficulty—but so often, they don't. It's all too familiar: John always takes the easy way out; Angel gives up at the first sign of difficulty; Anna falls apart when she gets a disappointing grade.

Of course, struggling students are especially vulnerable to helplessness and fear of failure.  But even high-performing kids fall prey to test anxiety, or avoid that one subject that fills them with dread. Why does this happen? And what can we do about it?

The sad truth is that many students feel very vulnerable in school. For lots of kids, school is above all a place where they are tested and judged—often publicly—and where they feel inadequate. Sometimes, this vulnerability extends to the home, especially if parents place a very high value on perfect performance or are intolerant of failure. It's not what we intend, but it's what they experience.

The good news is that it's within our power to change this, if we know the keys to creating a risk-tolerant home and classroom culture.

The Power of Mistakes

Most students dread "making a mistake"—especially a public one. Here's what one beginning 6th grader told us when we asked how he felt about doing a hard problem where he would make mistakes:

"If I were doing it in front of people? I wouldn't really want to do it, because when you make mistakes people will be, like, 'No what are you doing, you're doing it wrong,' and that tends to be embarrassing. When you ask for help, and there's kids around, they know that you're not understanding it, and then some people think that it's really easy, they're like, 'How are you not understanding it?' and it makes you feel stupid, and then you get embarrassed."  (Roberlio)

Note that Roberlio wasn't objecting to the difficult problem itself—it was the risk of embarrassment and "feeling stupid" that made him want to avoid a challenge. In our work, we've interviewed dozens of students and surveyed hundreds more, and most of them acknowledge similar concerns.

Here are four things you can do to create a risk-tolerant culture, and liberate the young people (and adults) in your life to reach their potential.

1)  Highlight the value of mistakes in the service of learning. If you ask them, most people will say that they've learned more from their mistakes than from their successes. And it's impossible to tackle a challenge without making some mistakes. So, celebrate mistakes in your classroom and home as great chances to learn. Explain that learning requires stretching beyond your comfort zone. As a teacher, when you introduce a new topic or assignment, tell students they should expect to find some things confusing and to make initial errors—and if they don't, that you need to raise the challenge level so they will in fact be learning. Point out the interesting varied ways people approach the same problem, and have your students discuss what each person was thinking.  Ask kids to share their "best" mistake of the week with you, and what they learned from it (and do the same yourself). And bring humor into the mix. A growth mindset teacher keeps a giant pink eraser labeled "For BIG mistakes" on her desk!

2)  Put kids in charge of their own learning. When we are preoccupied with obtaining a favorable evaluation by others, we become risk-averse. Rather than focusing on your evaluations, encourage your kids to assess their own progress. There are many good self-assessment tools out there for students of all ages. Among them, those that ask students to reflect on their learning process—what we call metacognitive thinking and strategies—are particularly helpful for increasing ownership of the learning experience. Finally, ask open-ended questions that prompt kids to think for themselves: not "What did you get on your test?" but "How did you prepare?" "Where did you get confused?" or "What did you learn?"

3)  Give growth mindset feedback. Praise the process, not the person. Don't get too excited about a "success," especially if it comes without effort. In the moment, it feels good to be told, "Fantastic, perfect, you're a genius!" But it focuses the young person's attention on the judgment that you have made about them, rather than on what they can control, such as their attention, effort, and strategy. Right now, it's a positive judgment—but if they don't do it perfectly the next time, it will be a letdown. (This is the source of a lot of anxiety among high-achieving kids.) Make challenge-seeking and diligent effort, rather than performance, the goal.

4)  Nurture a risk-tolerant peer culture. We may not find Roberlio's 6th grade classmates very intimidating, but peers are powerful agents, and you can't have a risk-tolerant culture without their cooperation. This can work the other way too: kids can tear down a classmate who seems to be striving in class (the well-known "crabs in a bucket" phenomenon). As the adult, you need to set the tone and establish clear expectations about how your students treat each other. How?

  • Never call out or embarrass a student publicly over anything if you can help it.
  • Don't over-praise students publicly—especially not for their attributes or for performance alone. Commend them instead for prosocial behavior—which can include accepting challenges, staying on task, persisting, and being resourceful, as well as volunteering, helping others, and being kind.
  • Encourage and model empathy. Ask students to reflect on how others may feel, and let them know that they can help create a culture that will support them by doing so for others. People tend to give back what they get!
  • Finally, never compare your kids with regard to their attributes or talents. (This one may be very hard!) When one of the kids in a family or classroom is "the smart one" or "the athletic one," that child may limit themselves to that pursuit--while the others may just give up trying in that domain for fear of never measuring up.

Some of these changes may take time, and at first your kids may even resist, especially if they've become dependent on easy praise or learned to be comfortable in a low-challenge mode. But if you stick with it, you'll see them start to show more initiative, persistence, and supportiveness of one another—the hallmarks of a growth mindset culture.

Tell us about your experiences in creating a risk-tolerant culture in your home or school!

Acknowledgments: Thanks to my educator-colleagues Jenn Maichin and Emily Diehl for sharing insights and practices that informed this piece!

Comments

  • Guest
    Mayfield Schools Thursday, 17 January 2013

    Encourage teachers to take a risk. It is ok if it doesn't work out....it is just an experiment. Isn't that what we are teaching our kids?

    Reply Cancel
  • Ryan Rice
    Ryan Rice Monday, 22 September 2014

    This article does a great job of giving a succinct overview of what a growth mindset is and how to promote it. As with many elements of knowledge in our lives, it is only good if we use it. I am trying and I am seeing success.

    Go ahead! Give it a try.

  • Laura Tucker
    Laura Tucker Monday, 03 November 2014

    Love the fun with sharing mistakes with each other in class. Everyone's given permission to admit mistakes and talk about what they learned from them. Great way to begin with growth mindset. :)

  • Guest
    Rick Allison Tuesday, 21 April 2015

    Facilitate a "me to we" attitude by having students coach other students who are struggling in certain areas.

  • ed briceno
    ed briceno Tuesday, 21 April 2015

    Agreed, a great practice! To build on it: a recent blog post by David Dockterman inspires a tweak:
    Facilitate a "me to we" attitude by having students coach other students in our struggles
    (with the idea being that we should all be struggling to stretch ourselves - see Dock's post at http://edublog.scholastic.com/post/all-students-should-be-struggling-learners ).
    Thanks for sharing your ideas and practices!

  • Guest
    Rick Allison Tuesday, 21 April 2015

    Yes! Everyone should be struggling at something. Diversity in learning is an opportunity to engage in unity and development of empathy.

    Reply Cancel
  • Guest
    Estelle Peck Tuesday, 05 May 2015

    I am a baby boomer born in the late 40's. How I wish mistakes, small or big, were seen as opportunities for growth. I easily recall the emotions, embarrassment, and rejection I felt from not rising to expectations of significant authority figures. To be belittled in public in childhood stays with one for a long time. But we are never too old to learn and believe in ourselves. Thanks to Mindset for teaching educators and parents the the process of positive thinking.

  • Carla Silva
    Carla Silva Tuesday, 05 May 2015

    IN CLASS -I am not a native English speaker so I ask them for the correct stress of words every now and then or double check some of spelling with them while writing on the board even when I may know the answer. I ask many questions regarding technology or ask them to help me with the SMART board often.
    AT HOME- I joined a choir a couple of years ago as singing is not a real gift I have. My kids knew it was a real challenge and so did I . They are invited to try and explore as many sports and activities they want as a way of knowing which one makes them really happy. Nothing is excluded.

  • Guest
    Rita Monday, 25 May 2015

    Well written and thanks for sharing your ideas and practices.
    Breaking down the barriers by asking students to coach each other is a win win for both parties ensuring mutual understanding and learning shared. It is a great way to develop empathy for others' struggles. We all don't get everything the first time round.

  • Guest
    Amina Khoka Friday, 10 July 2015

    Teaching and learning is a partnership between students and teachers. The mere fact of admitting that one learn from mistakes can have a substantial effect on a student. Also, looking at a mistake and its consequences with different angles can also prompt a student to broaden their mind horizon. By this, we are stretching their thinking tank and brain's horizon to accept diverse meanings drive from the situation

  • Guest
    Joseph F. Sunday, 02 August 2015

    I was asked to read this for a seminar and though it's a much different grade level--Community College--it definitely makes sense. My students this Summer session were so sad when the class was over. We had laughed, clapped, argued and thought about things almost as one mind!

    I find that it's not that teachers aren't taking risks, they just aren't creative in the classroom. Have them write a paper together about video game strategies! Instead of giving them individual quizzes in a deathly silenced room, have them do the quiz as a class. Instead of calling up two students for debate, have four, as REPRESENTATIONS for their group. And finally, to always invite them to write about multiple angles instead of one. This last part may be difficult for lower grades, but in college I find that it's extremely effective.

  • Barbara Clare
    Barbara Clare Thursday, 01 October 2015

    Developing a classroom where "mistakes" are an opportunity to help each other can go a long way. We all are in this together and making errors is one of the only ways we can learn and develop. Embrace it and don't get frustrated by it.

  • william hanna
    william hanna Saturday, 31 October 2015

    In a few words I can relate this great article with an idiom I always mentioned to my students in math class " if you stumble make it part of the dance", keep moving, do not waste time to hide or cover up missteps, do not let your fear of being imperfect stop you from doing the things you want to. Instead decide to do them imperfectly. Then you get the golden medal. The power of making mistakes, learn from it, do not dwell in failure, weak up and be persistent on facing the challenge. In engineering if you write a piece of code/program and worked from first trial, it is too good to be true, agin the power of making mistakes. I love it.

  • william hanna
    william hanna Saturday, 31 October 2015

    It is indeed great article the power of mistakes, I always share with my students in math class this idiom
    "If you stumble make it part of the dance" keep moving, don't waste time trying to hide or cover up your missteps, do not let your fear of being imperfect stop you from doing the things you want to. Instead, decide to do them, imperfectly. Then celebrate the Golden Medal. This is the power of making mistakes all about.
    In engineering software business, the rule of thump, when you write a piece of code/program , "If it works from first trial, it is too good to be true. The students/teachers people will indeed succeed if they adopt this amazing mindset growth concept- the power of mistakes.

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