Dealing with mistakes the growth mindset way

Growth Mindset

It is inevitable that when a student is learning new material or study skills, mistakes will be made.

Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone reacts the same way when they do. For some, a mistake is a way of learning what not to do, and is a way to arrive at the right solution. This is called a growth mindset. For example:

Sarah is being tested on her five times table and asks for a challenging one. When faced with the question 5 x 193.35 = x, Sarah puts 1000 for x. When corrected and told the answer is 966.75, Sarah asks her teacher to explain how to get the correct answer. She is excited about being able to learn something new and challenging. This builds her confidence as she keep realise she can overcome and learn what previous seemed difficult. Sarah decides to practise even more so she can get better and smarter.  

For other students, even a small mistake like this can be upsetting, which can lead to shutting down and not wanting to learn any more times tables. For example:

Tim is presented with the same question, 5 x 193.35 = x. Like Sarah. Time initially ask for an easier one as he prefer to get things right and look “good” in from of his teacher. The teacher asks for a response and Tim puts the wrong value for x. When his work is corrected, Tim’s heart sinks. He feels embarrassed and humiliated in front of the class. He is convinced that he is not good at maths, and that he will therefore never been able to master his times table. Because of this Tim does not want to practise and he decides to hide away in class and play more playstation at home.

Tim is a textbook example of a student with a fixed mindset. For him, mistakes are a blow to his confidence and emotional development, and he becomes uninterested in the subject as he is of the belief that he will never get to grips with it.

Neuroscience tells us that the brain is plastic and is developed and created by the input we provide. Intelligence and ability is created by stimulating specific areas of the brain. Students that are aware of this growth mindset, and believe in it, have in fact been shown to adopt it over time. When teaching students, especially young learners, you may be presenting them with a lot of information for the first time, which can naturally lead to mistakes being made. Making students aware of the science behind growth mindset, and reinforcing it’s ability to help children learn, is one way you can take the fear out of making mistakes.

How to motivate students to learn when dealing with mistakes

The key is to help pupils embrace mistakes, and view them as a positive experience rather than a negative experience.

Deliberate practice is a theory in the growth mindset school of thought that denotes that both the quality and amount of practice when applied to the right areas can result in you becoming an expert in something. This means simply that with enough practice, we can master anything, and that innate natural talent is not the main source of success, but practice and hard work is.

Psychologists and researchers have found this to be the case, and deliberate practice is an excellent theory to introduce to your students. Therefore when they make a mistake, you can them tell them the mistake has simply showed where they need to apply deliberate practice. It does not mean that they are incapable or a failure, but a mistake simply provides them with an opportunity to seek out feedback, practice and get better. It is by seeking out challenges, making mistakes and calibrating that optimal learning takes place.

To support this and prove the theory works, you may wish to point to famous examples of people such as Roger Federer, who have made mistakes, practiced repeatedly, and improved over time.