Research has shown that mistakes are important opportunities for learning and growth, but students often regard mistakes as indicators of their own low ability. Students’ mindset about mistakes and reactions are pointers to the ways in which teachers treat mistakes in mathematics classrooms. It was proposed that every time a student makes a mistake in mathematics, new synapses are formed in their brain (Dweck, 2012).
When students think about why something is wrong, new synaptic connections are sparked that cause the brain to grow. This small scientific fact has profound implications for teaching and learning. It suggests that students and teachers should value mistakes and move from viewing them as learning failures to viewing them as learning achievements.
The prevalence of fixed mindset beliefs among students has led to students being too careful to make attempts or creative in handling tasks or solving problems. Students need to be working on challenging work that require different attempts resulting to mistakes; their mistakes should be valued and evaluated for the opportunities they provide for brain development and learning.
In my work with different students, I find ways to significantly reposition mistakes in classes, with grading students not by marking a mistake with a cross or “x” but with a question mark, ‘how did you arrive at this answer’. I pick a few mistakes I’ve noticed and discuss them with the whole class to appreciate the effort put into it, the processes, what went wrong and the right processes.
Research studies of learning and the brain, from the fields of education and neuroscience, have been brought together in the last decade to produce findings that are critically important for schools.
These findings include:
- The plasticity of the brain: ability and intelligence grow with effort and practice.
- The importance of students’ mindsets for learning – when students believe that everybody’s ability can grow, their achievement improves significantly.
- The importance of teachers’ mindsets for teaching – when teachers believe that everybody’s ability can grow, and they give all students opportunities to achieve at high levels, students achieve at high levels.
It must also be said that divisive and deeply-held cultural beliefs about learning and about what it means to be ‘smart’, are very difficult to change. Hence the ‘Mindset Revolution’, the optimistic phrase that stands at the head of this post.
Fixed mindset beliefs about mistakes contribute to inequalities in education as they particularly harm some set of students; they also contribute to overall low achievement and participation. Schools should be encouraging growth mindset beliefs as a matter of urgency.
Mistakes are important opportunities for learning and growth, but students often view them as indicators of their own low ability. Mistakes reveal the thought processes of students and should be acknowledged as part of learning.
Teachers need to accommodate, discuss and applaud attempts that lead to the mistakes – this encourages students to be flexible in thoughts and more creative.
Making mistakes is part of learning!