Mistakes necessary, natural components of learning
By Xavier Botana, with Melea Nalli
Remember learning to ride a bicycle? An adult probably ran alongside you, holding onto the bike to keep you moving. When they let go, you may at first have wobbled or fallen. But you learned from your early mishaps — and now you can ride a bike.
In an important way, learning in the classroom is like learning to ride a bicycle: Mistakes can serve as a proving ground for improvement.
The Portland Public Schools believe that practicing and learning from mistakes are natural and necessary parts of the learning process.
In fact, that belief is the sixth of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about Learning.
Together with Melea Nalli, our Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, I’m writing a series of columns about our Learning Beliefs. This month we’re focusing on how our teaching practices help students learn from their mistakes.
At the Portland Public Schools, we don’t want our students’ early mistakes in learning to stop them from realizing their potential. That’s why we use a cycle of instruction that includes different ways to show what they know and frequent feedback and revision.
At Deering High School, for instance, students are encouraged to explore their strengths and weaknesses while taking rigorous courses. To support that, says Deering AP biology teacher Ian McLean, “in several AP classes we allow students a chance to make up half the difference between their original score and a 100. For example, for a multiple choice question typically seen on an AP exam, a student must articulate in essay format both why their answer was conceptually wrong and how the right answer is the best choice. … This promotes the idea that learning is a work in progress and mistakes are inevitable if you are truly challenging yourself.”
In math classes, students often feel a sense of failure when they make mistakes, despite the fact that brain research shows that deeper learning results from making mistakes on difficult tasks, notes Riverton Elementary School Principal Ann Hanna.
So, in classes such as math, she says, “we encourage students to look at their mistakes as opportunities for growth. When a student makes a mistake, but is demonstrating a misconception that is probably common across the room, a teacher might comment: ‘Oh, that’s my favorite mistake! Can anyone figure out how he or she might have gotten that answer?’ The idea is that there is a lot of learning that comes from looking at our mistakes.”
In an elementary reading or writing workshop, students and teachers have a “growth mindset” — an understanding “that mistakes are where the learning begins,” says Lorraine Bobinsky, a teacher leader at Reiche Community School.
The workshop teacher provides in-the-moment feedback, naming what each student is doing well and then teaching into next steps. “The teacher is always analyzing where the students are by looking at the students' misunderstandings or mistakes and then providing explicit feedback to support the students as they get closer and closer to the learning target,” Bobinsky said.
At East End Community School, staff use restorative approaches to help students learn from “mistakes” in social emotional situations. Instead of focusing on what students in conflict have done “wrong,” students are given the opportunity to hear each other’s perspectives and the impact their actions had. They then work together to repair harm and reach agreement on how to move forward, learning long-term problem-solving strategies and empathy in the process.
In all these examples, constructive feedback, revision and different ways to demonstrate proficiency help turn mistakes into learning opportunities.