MLinsights_JULY2020

Embracing a curious attitude to mistake-making

Have you ever watched a toddler who is learning how to walk for the first time? The tentative and slow wobbly steps, the grasping for something or someone to help balance and the inevitable falls are all part of the process. Thankfully, toddlers do not give up when they fail and they inherently know to push through the falls until they gain mastery of this essential skill.

Alfred Einstein said that: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” This is, of course, the natural learning process. Unfortunately, our results-oriented society does not always offer to others the same patience and grace that we afford toddlers and seems to present contradictory messages which can impair this process for many of us.

In her groundbreaking book Mindset, Carol Dweck famously writes about the importance of teaching students to embrace the learning process and to avoid equating their self-value with achievement. She writes: “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

These are important messages that go beyond the classroom and to our expectations of students and the way that they relate to one another in their lives.

We know that throughout adolescence the human brain changes significantly. It goes through a process whereby the synapse-intense juvenile brain prunes its less utilised synapses while strengthening the transmission channels between heavily used neurons. We also know that the prefrontal cortex – the repository of our predictive, consequential and organisational thinking – is still under development until it matures in our twenties.

This means that the adolescent brain is by design mistake-prone and not yet ready to quickly appreciate the consequences of actions or inactions. Unfortunately, much of the adolescent world is not set up with this in mind. So much of our students’ socialising takes place on social media where communications, and thus consequences, are instantaneous.

We can best support student learning and living by embracing a curious attitude to mistake-making. This enables us to see mistakes for what they should be – vital feedback that directs our future learning. Youki Terada, from the George Lucas Educational Foundation, writes: “Mistakes are crucial pieces of information that force a cognitive reckoning, pushing the brain to reconcile contradictory information and build more accurate, durable solutions.”

So how do we enable a culture that emboldens student risk taking in their learning and destigmatises mistake making? One way is to explore the narratives of how so many of our leading change makers in so many realms of society learned from failures and mistakes and used them to fuel their learning and advancement. The stories of Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison and Oprah Winfrey are all rich examples.

Personal stories where parents discuss their own mistakes and what they have learned from them can also be important in normalising this process.

An increased focus on valuing effort and process over outcome can also assist in embedding this culture.

In a world that is prone to binaries of right-wrong and good-bad, it can be hard to embolden brave actions and new learnings for fear of the dire consequences of mistakes. Yet we know and understand that embracing our inner toddler and falling on our behinds from time to time is the only way for us to learn how to move forward.