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Educator Development

Modeling Mistakes and Creating Trust in the Classroom

All learning, for both students and teachers, involves frustration and mistakes along the way.

Take language learning, for example. As a student, I had the mortifying experience of repeating to a Spanish-speaking friend that I was ‘un poquito embarazada’ about my mediocre language abilities. Relying on English/Spanish cognates, I tried to convey that I was ‘a little embarrassed’ about my Spanish. Rather, I said that I was ‘a little bit pregnant.’

As a former Spanish teacher, I often shared this excruciating story with students. Why? I needed them to know I made mistakes while learning—really big ones—and lived to tell about it. Did I learn the correct way to express my embarrassment? Absolutely. Did new mistakes help me continue to improve and avoid making this mistake twice? Of course.

Teaching is tricky. Teachers are expected to model the behaviors and dispositions of effective learning, and at the same time, need to show up as masters of the content they teach. This requirement makes the words ‘I don’t know’ painful to utter. In a world of high-stakes testing that offers students four options in a multiple-choice format, there’s little room for error. Yet, we know that real-world problems rarely, if ever, present themselves as four choices with only one correct answer.

If we want to create resilient, capable, problem-solving students and build trust in the classroom, we need to allow them to make mistakes that encourage them to learn and grow. Students learn best when their affective filter is low. When mistake-making is perceived as bad, it is detrimental to learning.

There are several reasons why mistakes can enhance learning in the classroom. Making mistakes can increase students’ curiosity about a certain topic. Mistakes can serve as mediators, providing additional retrieval cues to guide the students to the correct responses. The process of making mistakes requires more elaborative processing of the correct information. This roundabout cognitive journey allows the correct answers to be connected with the students’ prior knowledge and mental processes.

Many students and educators view mistakes as ‘bad.’ However, cognitive psychology research shows that this may not be the case. Research findings taken from the scientific experiments of Fazio and Marsh and Butterfield and Metcalfe support the idea that mistakes made in high confidence have beneficial effects on learning and knowledge retention.

Learning from mistakes can lead to greater correction rate. After a mistake is made, more attention is given in order to fix that mistake by obtaining the correct information. Furthermore, the information is processed at a deeper level. Students who have high confidence in their answer and are surprised to discover that they answered incorrectly are more likely to remember the correct information in the future, according to these research findings. A study by Metcalfe and Kornell supports the claim that mistakes do not impair learning so long as feedback is given. Reflecting on this research and our own experiences, how can we apply these ideas to the classroom?

Encourage risk taking. Reward effort. Remind students that their mistakes are not failures but rather they are stepping stones to the correct answers. We must allow our students to model learning through trial and error.

The same holds for teachers.

When we create Educator Development experiences that reward teacher risk-taking, we’re creating an environment of trust, which means encouraging teachers to continually renew their practice through experimentation, failure and iteration.

Learn more about designing effective educator PD with this free course from our sister company Participate.