Learn by making mistakes

Taking a trip down memory lane, can you remember what it was like learning to walk for the very first time? You’re a young infant probably between 8-17 months, trying to discover something that, like riding your bike, feels completely alien to you when you first try it. What happens? The young infant tries to put one foot in front of the other, but topples over sideways onto the floor prompting a giggle as the sensation of falling over is somewhat exhilarating. The infant climbs to their feet again, before eagerly attempting the task again. The second attempt is just as unsuccessful as the first, though you wouldn’t know it if you’re going on the infant’s reaction which is even more excitable than before! This sequence of events (attempt, fail, try again) continues for weeks and months until walking is eventually achieved.

Away from the coaching setting, I took a trip down memory lane myself last week, in the form of a primary school observation. Enlightening and insightful as it was, I came across a thought provoking issue which highlights a fundamental issue within society today. During a maths class, a young pupil in Year 3 (7 or 8 years old) was sat with her head in her hands, clearly in some distress. When the teacher enquired what the matter was, her response – “I don’t know what to do. I don’t get it.” Let’s stop right there. Does that seem such a big issue? You may, or may not think so. Perhaps by the end of this though you may be swaying towards the former if you weren’t already!

So why is it such a big issue? Well let’s examine the facts; this young pupil doesn’t understand something and instantly perceives this challenge as negative. They have come to the conclusion that they will get the task wrong if they so much as attempt it. So no effort is therefore made. Let’s rewind back to the story of walking experienced by most, where making a mistake (falling over) was perceived as a mere obstacle – an interesting, even humorous challenge. At some point then, from the age of walking to 7 or 8 years old, a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ has developed in the mind, and now mistakes are interpreted as things to avoid.

Is that what we want – young people growing up under this assumption? Certainly not. Is it therefore the child’s fault for thinking like this? Most likely they’re not consciously aware of their cognitions, so surely not. So whose fault is it – no ones in fact! The key issue however is the way we address this reaction, how we teach our young people to perceive ‘getting it wrong’, how we bring them up to welcome mistakes like the infant who was leaning to walk. Why? Simply because mistakes are how we learn.

The Language of Success
Imagine you’re coaching a particularly able player on the sports field, or student In the classroom. They execute or complete the tasks you set them, with apparent ease after a little time. What feedback are you likely to offer them? Most would agree that the person deserves some form of congratulation for their efforts; a “well done” or something greater, perhaps even a reward of some sort. Think again. What effect is that praise going to have on the person? Yes, it’s going to make them feel better, boost their confidence and raise their self-esteem….hang on a minute, we want all these things right?

Whilst these are of course desirable, we must also look beneath the surface, and consider that praise makes one feel comfortable. It makes you want more, to make yourself feel even better. Are you likely therefore, to attempt something that might mean you don’t receive this praise, i.e. something that has the potential to go wrong? Perhaps not. It might be the maths task that the young pupil was faced with; it might be that cutting edge ball through the middle of the midfield; it might even be moving away from home for the first time.

Psychologist Carol Dweck talks a lot about ‘Fixed’ and ‘Growth’ mindsets; a fixed mindset (like that of the young pupil) assumes that intelligence is something you have, or haven’t got – typical characteristics include challenge avoidance and a perception that effort is a waste of time. A growth mindset on the other hand assumes (like the walking infant) that intelligence can be developed; that challenges should be embraced; that effort is the path to mastery. It doesn’t take a genius to see that we should be educating our young people to adopt a grown mindset for them to succeed. Yet the feedback we often give, constantly promotes a fixed mindset and encourages our learners to stay within the realms of their comfort zone.

What else could we say to the learner that exceeds our expectations and finishes the task? Something that will promote effort as the path to mastery…..maybe something along the lines of “well that was far too easy, try these harder ones.” What about the learner that’s finding it hard to complete the task? How about, “if you’re finding it difficult that’s excellent – you are learning.” See the difference? Both are emphasising effort as key to success, conveying that success is not innately acquired, whilst also acknowledging that having difficulty with something, and making a mistake is necessary for progress.

Look back on some of the experiences you’ve been through in your life – what mistakes have you made? More importantly however, what impact have they had on you? What did they teach you? Now of course, whilst making mistakes are a good thing, we obviously don’t want to make the same recurring ones too frequently as progress will undoubtedly be limited. Reflection is a fundamental aspect we must encourage our learners to engage in with their mistake making, as we must do. But perhaps next time you are about to offer some praise, just think about how you might phrase it. Will it help promote the characteristics of Dweck’s growth mindset? Will it continually promote the need to journey outside of our comfort zone, or stay firmly within?

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