Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Misconception of Mistakes

The Misconception of Mistakes

“It's how you deal with failure that determines how you achieve success.”
-Charlotte Whitton

In our society we are taught to be ashamed of mistakes. In my professional reading, I recently came across a study that sheds more light on what learning does to the brain and, more specifically, what learning from mistakes does to our brains. The study is reported in Scientific-American under the headline The Learning Brain Gets Bigger-Then Smaller: New studies map the changing landscape of neurons as the brain masters a task. It’s a fairly dense report. In experiments the researchers conducted, it appears that the brain gets bigger when learning new things. However, after time lapses it returns closer to its original size, with changes left in neurons and synapses. When the brain is getting bigger, it is apparently collecting information made from the experiences of numerous mistakes. After awhile, it identifies the key lessons learned from those errors, retains them, and discards the rest. This information is very important for anyone trying to understand how students to learn. Based on this research, children need to be encouraged to take more risks in their learning, and feel less frustrated by the mistakes they might make. Based on this information, we need to redefine the perception of mistakes and teach our children to embrace them as learning opportunities.

In another article on the same topic tiltled Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes, the authors, Maats and O’Brien write about the science behind mistakes. They reference the notion of the 10,000 hour rule, a concept widely believed by many to be a benchmark of how much time it takes to become an expert in almost any field. They define deliberate practice as the process an individual goes through to isolate their weaknesses. The authors note, “Mistakes are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus that deliberate practice.” In her article The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom, New York Times journalist Alina Tugend argued that fear is a big motivator for why students have such a negative perception towards making mistakes. “If students are afraid of mistakes, then they're afraid of trying something new, of being creative, of thinking in a different way.” It is up to each of us to change that perspective so that students can be free to practice and make mistakes and focus their deliberative practice on the things that are going to help them learn. Failure to do so may result in a generation of students who are afraid to raise their hands when they don't know the answer to a question and students who would rather ask an adult for help than try something on their own first.

When we tell kids that learning is all about the results, we teach them that mistakes are something to be feared and avoided. We stifle their interest in experimenting because experimenting means you may have a blunder or fail and that’s too big a risk. We need to change our practices in order to foster an environment where children are encouraged to take risks and are supported through the learning process so they can succeed. Michael Jordan epitomizes this philosophy.  In a commercial for Nike he stated, “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

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