A big trend in education now is that of Growth Mindset, but this concept has been around for a while. Dr. Carol Dweck and her colleagues began studying the impact of student’s attitudes about failure over 30 years ago. She then coined the phrases “fixed mindset” (the belief that our basic abilities, talents and intelligence are what they are and cannot change) and “growth mindset” (the belief that our abilities and skills can be developed with effort, learning and persistence).
This year you may have even noticed your child learning about Growth Mindset in one or more of his classes. This change in thinking bodes well for our students. So many students are afraid of being wrong, and instead increase their own stress levels with expectations of being correct. In today’s classrooms, significant numbers of students are fearful of experiencing the discomfort of not knowing an answer for even a few moments.
Until recently, in education there was a great deal of focus on the outcome, or the end result, due to standardized testing. Students often thought that knowing the answer meant they were smart. We need to help students recognize that mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process and that intelligence includes the ability to solve problems. Solving problems involves making mistakes, learning from them, and then changing course to continue to search for the solution. Understanding what is not correct, and why, is as important as understanding the “correct” answer.
Part of the discomfort in making public mistakes has to do with the culture and expectations of the learning environment. Some classrooms welcome it, while others do not. As a parent you may not be able to control the classroom setting, but you can support a proactive learning environment at home by promoting and discussing the following benefits, beliefs, and educational values with your children.
- Mistakes build problem-solving skills. When we must think and work hard to find new ways to solve a problem, we expand our thinking and fill up our problem solving “tool box” with new strategies.
- Mistakes can build self-confidence. How we speak to ourselves makes a huge difference in how we feel about ourselves and our performance. When we make a mistake say, “OK, that didn’t work. Why not? What other strategy can I use to solve this problem?” We may use a strategy we already learned, use our resources to find another way, or we may come up with a new approach. Regardless of which method we choose, we can rely on ourselves to find a solution.
- Mistakes build personal growth. When we don’t know the answer, we must take a risk and either ask for help or try a new strategy. We don’t know the outcome of either before we choose, but the process builds our understanding of the learning process, as well as our role in our own learning.
- Mistakes help develop creativity. Hitting a road block requires us to think in new ways.
- “The Key to Success is Failure.” When our daughter was in 4th grade this phrase was on a sign in her classroom and has stuck with me ever since. Research by the American Psychological Association finds that students are more likely to have academic success if they view failure as a step along the path to learning.
- Mistakes foster new learning experiences and successes (“Happy Accidents”). When something doesn’t work out right, we might actually discover something new. These well-known items were discovered by accident, by scientists working toward something else: Post-It® Notes, chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, penicillin, X-rays, and fireworks, to name a few. I don’t know about yours, but our household has greatly enjoyed the mistake of chocolate chip cookies! What will your child discover though his next mistake?
- Mistakes fight the fear of failure. The more experiences we have with mistakes, the less frightening they will be. We will learn that a mistake is not a commentary on our intelligence level, but instead simply a necessary part of learning. Eventually, we will come to welcome mistakes because we will know that mistakes do not mean failure; they direct us to the next step.
- Mistakes are important! Mistakes are how we learn. Not only do we learn factual material this way, but we also learn coping skills. Learning to handle and manage mistakes is an important life skill that will shape our courage, critical thinking skills, creativity, mutual respect for others, and independence.
By supporting your child’s efforts and the benefits of their mistakes as well as achievements, you show them you value them as a person, a learner and a problem-solver. Continue to talk with her about her successes and challenges. Engage in a dialogue about what she can learn from her mistakes. Support her as she uses her resources and her own problem-solving skills to work through academic challenges. Shifting the discussion about school struggles this way will also support more positive family communication. So, go ahead; make a mistake!