Sunday, April 27, 2014

Making Mistakes in the Classroom - Do IT!

This week I noticed people talking a lot about making mistakes in the classroom.  Not, one, but two, Edutopia blog posts about mistakes came across my social media feeds.  One was from March and titled "Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes", the other was from last week called "Supporting Student Resilience in the Classroom."  A friend of mine, who is in her third year of teaching math, posted to Facebook "If I keep telling my students that it is GOOD to make mistakes, I need to walk the talk with teaching. Stop being scared of making mistakes."

Clearly mistake-making is on people's mind these days.

I teach science, specifically chemistry, and throughout history making mistakes has lead to some amazing discoveries: penicillin (a dirty lab), Teflon (trying to make a new adhesive), Post-It notes (another adhesive story), the list goes on and on.

Photo by UGL_UIUC
Somewhere in school we became obsessed with perfection.  I am guessing it happened roughly around the time we lost the idea of exploration in school and quit doing science for just for the sake of science. High-stakes testing and all that.

I often see insecurity in my students.  I grade for mastery, rather than completion, meaning they do not get credit for assignments until they show me they understand the material.  I can see how I could be feeding the perfection monster with this method, but when I used to grade for completion ("Yay!  You wrote down something; here's your points") students never got feedback about their work.  The test at the end of the unit was the only measure of their knowledge.  Now their work is more of a dialogue.  They show me their work, I examine it on the spot, indicate where they made errors, and send them back to try again.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  I give varying levels of feedback based on the student and the mistakes they make.  Sometimes I circle the error.  Sometimes I give them a hint.  Sometimes I see a major flaw in their understanding and we sit and discuss it right then and there.  Maybe we work through another problem together.  Then I send them back to try again.

Many students initially hate this about my class.  I had a parent conference this year where the student (who was near tears) lamented that I demand perfection.  I said this was not the case; I insist you demonstrate understanding.  By the end of the conference the parents and the student were in a much better place because they understood the method to my madness.  I explain it to students, but they don't always understand right away.  It's okay to make mistakes, but it's important to understand them and to work past them.

As the school year goes on, most students grow to like my grading for mastery method because of the continual feedback loop.  Others, well, you can't win them all.

Chemistry by Emil Johansson
Back to the idea of student insecurity, this fear of making mistakes is rampant when they are doing labs.  They are constantly checking with me to see if they are "doing it right" or if that is what they are "supposed to get."  I frustrate them continually because I refuse to give a straight answer.  As long as they are posing no danger to themselves or others, I let them charge forward and I offer them little-to-no reassurance.  I shrug my shoulders, refer them to the procedures, and offer non-answers about how Dalton, Rutherford, Bohr, and other scientists we discuss couldn't turn around and say to someone "is this okay?"  When I grade their labs I grade the process more than getting the expected results.

We have fostered and nurtured this fear in children from the moment they are born.  Parents seem to be hyper-vigilant now more than ever.  We give them cell phones with GPS trackers and an adult is never more than a call or a text away.  Instead of children making decisions, it is easy to just text someone and ask they should do.  When a student asks if they should do something, try saying to them "what do you think?" and observe their reaction.  Some will reason things out, others will be mad you didn't tell them "the answer."

Schools are no better.  We have raised a generation of children on standardized testing where everything was all about getting the right answer.  Schools would lose funding, teachers would be fired, and frogs would rain down from the heavens if our students dare make a mistake on a high-stakes exam.

So what has all of this done to teachers?  It has made us afraid to make mistakes!  We are in the same boat as our students.  "I screwed up that lesson!  Nobody got it!  Now I need to reteach and I lose a day on my 'racing calendar' to the exam."

Teaching is an art as much as it is a science.  You need to be able to read the room.  Gauge your audience.  No class or lesson is exactly the same as the last.  You use data to help determine whether or not students "get it" (there's the science) but there is no single, right way to help them get it (this brings in the art).

I said to my friend who was publicly admonishing herself about making mistakes in front of students that it is good modeling.  We go on and on telling students that it is okay to make mistakes, but yet we don't allow ourselves the same leeway.  

In teaching we discuss modeling all the time.  Model how to solve math and science problems.  Model how to write essays.  Model appropriate behavior.  Model conflict resolution. Model how to make a model.  How many of us model mistake making?  How many model what students should do when they are stuck on a problem?

I tell my students I make mistakes all of the time.  On occasion, I intentionally make a math error on the board to see if they are paying attention.  I laugh it off and show them it's no big deal.  I show them how I made the error after they tell me where.  Making mistakes is nothing to be afraid of.  You don't get ridiculed for being wrong in my room.
Delete "MISTAKE" by Terrance Heath

This is especially important in my AP Chemistry class.  I tell them that some of the stuff I teach them I only do once a year.  The concepts I teach in first year chemistry I teach 5-11 times in a single year.  Multiply that by 11 years and you can see that there are some things I know backwards and forwards.  There is rarely a mistake they can make that I haven't seen before.
With AP Chemistry I tend to get the kids that lean towards perfectionism.  First year chemistry came easy to them, so why shouldn't the second year?  This is my 8th year teaching AP Chem.  I haven't seen every mistake, and I make my fair share of them too, as we work complex problems that take 5-15 minutes to solve.  It's easy to make a math error and derail 10 minutes of work.  It's important to model what to do.  I am honest with the students.  I tell them I only see their material once a year so sometimes it takes me longer to see errors.  I sometimes solve tricky problems in advance, but I try not to copy my notes to the board because I want them to see problem-solving happen "organically."  

There was one problem a month ago where we all looked at it scratching our heads while saying "that's not right."  Does this make me a bad teacher?  Ignorant?  Unprepared?  Ill-qualified to teach AP Chemistry?  I don't think most people would say those things.  Together, as a class, we stepped back, looked at the problem again, found the mistake, and went on from there. 

Sure, we lost a few minutes of class time, but they got to see the process of what to do when mistakes are made.  I didn't get mad.  I didn't cry.  I didn't quit.  I didn't blow it off and say to the class "I don't know.  Let's do a different problem."  I wasn't embarrassed (well, maybe a little, but we were all laughing that something was clearly wrong).  I was perplexed and wanted to find the error, as did they.  It's fine to instruct students in what to do when they make a mistake (go back and look at the problem, check your math, etc.) but they need to see it in action.

So this was a long post to essentially say I am pro-mistake.  Make them!  Own them when you screw up in class.  It humanizes you and makes you seem approachable.  Intentionally make them if you need to.  Students need to know it is okay.  They need to learn resourcefulness.  They need to learn to not give up.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is to not be perfect. 


  1. Students not wanting to make mistakes drives me crazy. In middle school I find they are obsessed with turning in assignments with only the right answers. If they do 90% of the work but messed up at the beginning they erase it all and redo that work to show a "perfect" paper. Then I have students who will erase all the work because they got the answer right and now don't need the work. Ahhhh it's frustrating. And I'm not perfect at all, I make mistakes on the board all the time. If I can get a kid to learn to cross out the error and then continue to the solution I'm happy!

    I tried pens once instead of pencils. They blocked off all their errors in nice 2 x 3 inch solid rectangles of ink. :)


  2. I hear you Xan. I see some of the same things in high school though not as bad (thanks for helping break some of them that). My favorite is when they get their lab paper wet and want a new one. No! You were doing science, things get wet, move on!

    One of the things I see is the focus on the answers and not caring about the process. Sometimes I put all of the answers on the board. Then I say "figure it out." It helps them see I don't always care about the answer, but how they got there.

  3. Hi Xan, That's very right that teaching is an art as much as it is a science. That's why in many places psychology is also part of teacher's training. It gives a better understanding of the classroom and audience as well. When we talk about a subject like chemistry tuition then really it takes a lot of hard work to clear the concepts. I really appreciate the hard work and efforts you put into teaching to make students thoroughly understand the topic. Thanks for an interesting post. Keep sharing your experiences.