What Happens If Your Student Makes A Mistake?

2011Symposium_1_2There are two things that ought to be closely related, but often are not. Those two things are practice and excellence. I don’t mean that practice doesn’t lead to excellence; we all know that it can and often does. But what I’m talking about is a growing belief among people of all ages that somehow if we can’t perform at the highest level right away, then there’s something wrong with us. When we feel this way, the last thing we want is for anyone else to see us not doing everything perfect. The truth is we humans don’t work that way. We aren’t “plug and play.” Honestly, I’m glad we are made the way we are. I’m glad because the great thing about doing something at a high level of excellence is that we worked hard to achieve. Things that are earned are always valued more than things that come easily. Were everything to be doable at the highest level right away, we would be hopelessly bored with and uninterested in everything we do.

I’m also glad we are made the way we are, because I enjoy watching students grow and improve, and being a contributor to that growth and improvement. Most of us got into teaching in the first place because we wanted to be a positive influence on people, and to help them achieve a better life. All of this depends on change, without which learning cannot take place. The best moments in a class is when someone has just learned something. Yesterday, I was doing tonal patterns with one of my second grade classes. I sang a short tonal pattern, and then individual students were chosen to sing just the last note I had sung. When the student responded with the correct sung pitch, I moved on to someone else with a different pattern. When the student responded with an incorrect sung pitch, I moved on to someone else with the same pattern, and continued doing so until someone got it right. Then I returned to the first person who had sung the wrong note to give them another chance. The student sang the right note this time. I stopped and made a big deal out of the fact that he had gotten wrong at first, but had now gotten it right. “That” I said “is what this is all about.” Realizing you’ve made a mistake, finding the right response, and then giving the right response yourself.” In doing this, I was not only celebrating the correction, I was making the point that mistakes are a necessary part of learning. They are cues that more information is needed, and an opportunity for acquiring that information from someone else and adding it to our own understanding and learning. People who don’t make mistakes don’t do anything, and learn little to nothing. People who make mistakes and just go on without ever learning from them are just as badly off. People who make mistakes and then learn what that mistake was and then correct the mistake are excellent learners, and among the most successful people in the world.

When teachers place students in competitive or punitive situations where mistakes are punished and only success is rewarded, they are undermining the very process by which learning must occur and robbing students of that priceless moment when the mistake has been turned into a victory. The laudable thing is the mistake turned into success, not free success for such quick gain benefits the student less in the long run. This is not to say we encourage our students to make mistakes so that they can then correct them, but rather to make it safe for our students to make mistakes so that they do not avoid trying in order to avoid making a mistake. Students must learn that genuine and sustained effort leads to better results, and part of that effort is solving problems and correcting mistakes.

Next week is our school vacation week, so I will not be posting during that time. Please frequent this site often and enjoy the many offerings in the archives during the coming week, and look for a new posts resuming on February 23.

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