January 2012
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Don’t Fear the Mistakes

During teaching, there is a fascinating (and unfortunately common) problem: Students are VERY reluctant to suggest an answer, for fear that they might be wrong.

Salman Kahn, noticed this phenomenon after he started doing videos for his niece and nephew: (I’m paraphrasing) “The last thing they needed was for me to be there expecting an answer.”

Teachers at the university level are fighting a behavioral lesson that we pick up in elementary school. Although young students often have the bravery (or lack of self-awareness) that allows them to speak up in class, it’s consistently beaten out of them: There’s nothing more degrading than being laughed at by the rest of the class. The other children are so insecure themselves, that they’ll take every opportunity to pick themselves up by mocking others.

Also, even for the talented students, if they are praised about their intelligence they will end up taking fewer risks: and try fervently to be wrong less. This lesson comes from Carol Dweck’s work: Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance. [Why do some people learn faster?]

Naturally, almost everyone will leave the early public education system less excited than when they entered. University and College teachers then have the problem of rekindling the excitement and interest we were all born with. But to accomplish this, we must find ways of fighting the earlier training: we must encourage participation and the mistakes that come with exploring.

John Holt has a book, “How Children Fail”, which contains the following conclusions:

  1. Schools promote an atmosphere of fear.
  2. Boredom serves as another major obstacle.
  3. ‘Cookie-cutter’ education does not cultivate intrinsic interests and learning.
  4. Mixed Signals: Parents praise curiosity and questions, school does not.
  5. There is no single body of information that all children should learn.

So, what can be done?

  1. Exercise Choice Theory. Recognize that you can cultivate a positive attitude, and change your response.
  2. Fail more often, and get used to how it feels. Routinely try to go beyond your comfort zone.
  3. Push yourself. Don’t stop at the first obstacle. Try a different approach. Don’t avoid things you dislike.
  4. Debrief your experience. If you don’t succeed, spend time to figure out why not. Brainstorm, and loop back with any new approaches.
  5. Also, Aligna Tugend’s book “Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong” contains still more lessons.

That works for oneself, but what about the students?

If they are afraid of giving the ‘wrong’ answer to a question, change the question to “tell me something that doesn’t work.”

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