I made a mistake, and the world didn’t end

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Article from TeachThought: 9 ways to help students learn through their mistakes

I made a mistake, and the world didn’t end.

I’ve being working with my Boston College host Prof and my good Trinity College Dublin colleague in Ireland on a virtual university collaboration since before leaving for the States. Now, you may not know this, but this sort of organisation is my superpower (not that you’d think it if you saw my desk). I do lists, colour codes, templates, and schedules. I cajole and corral. I get the job done. This virtual collaboration was no different. Everything was ticked off my lists, the RSVP numbers had surpassed expectations and the speakers were prepped, primed, and ready to go. And then, on event day, a text from my Irish colleague ‘Where are you?’. On first reading I thought she was being a little over excited, we had arranged to join thirty minutes before the speakers and guests, and I still had forty-five minutes until then. Wrong! In all the planning, notes, and lists, I hadn’t double checked the time. Or to be more precise, counted properly on my fingers!! With twelve minutes to go panic set in on both sides of the Atlantic….what would we do? There was no time to think. The Irish were already gathering in the waiting room while the Bostonians were not joining for another hour. Time differences for the mathematically challenged suck!

So, what did I do other than panic? Well, nothing, that was my solution. Myself and my Irish colleague forgot all our communication skills. I sent a rushed email to Boston College attendees pretty much saying ‘drop everything, the collab start in eight minutes’ while my colleague was quickly putting messages in chat for Trinity College colleagues in the waiting room. Once we took a breath to speak, we realised that neither of us had come up with an effective solution. And the waiting room was filling! Now we were considering postponing the event all together. The embarrassment levels were high. I was mortified and felt it was all my fault, I mean you can’t count five ahead-on their fingers. This was going to make old colleagues I respected and new colleagues whom I was trying you demonstrate my skill set to think I was stupid and not capable. The tears were forming, the blood pressure rising. Nothing to do but let them in. In true Irish style the TCD speakers and attendees were like ‘it’s grand, we’ll come back in an hour’ while it was wonderful to see so many BC speakers and attendees had dropped everything to join. And two hours later I was breathing again. The event was over and had turned out to be very successful. Yet I had been ready to give you and cancel it.

And this got me thinking about our students and how ‘making a mistake’ can turn into an exclusionary or inclusive experience, an experience where students learn to pick themselves up or give up. And, how which experience the student has may often be dictated, subconsciously or not, by the teacher. Regardless, of their capacity and whether they are top of the class or struggling to get by, every student needs to learn how to see mistakes as learning opportunities, as part of their learning journey. They need to learn that the world won’t end, eventhough it may seem like it at the time! Mistakes can help us become better problem solvers, more solution-focused learners. However, the demands of the classroom -for teachers and students- exam pressure, needing to keep your grades up or dreading getting it wrong again can negatively impact our students’ resilience to the point of forgetting to communicate, collaborate, and problem-solve. If it can happen to adults, it most certainly can happen to students. And here’s the thing. Unlike my situation where my colleagues offered solutions, rowed in behind me to make my even a successful experience, students don’t often see collaboration as anything other than group work to get the job done. And in my experience, those who can often do the doing for those who are making mistakes or not keeping up. Why, because it’s about the finished product and not the learning. And here no one is learning how to deal with mistakes. And worse, students may stop engaging.

The UDL principle of Engagement addresses ‘picking ourselves up’ in its guideline ‘Self-Regulation’, though you will see resilience and solution-focused behaviours are embedded throughout the principles. The checkpoints

  • Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation
  • Facilitate personal coping skills and strategies
  • Develop self-assessment and reflection

empower teachers from the outset to plan for mistakes within their design and use these as opportunities to develop resilience, reflection, and problem-solving skills within our students in addition to working towards the intended mastery goal. And often this means the teacher standing back -as hard as that is for us- and let our students make those mistakes so that they can learn and grow. It might mean mixing up our groups so that the same student isn’t always leading with the same student not sharing their voice or their skills. It will mean teaching negotiating skills. And it will mean embedded those intentional choices, scaffolds, and challenges, being there to guide rather than fix, and managing our own fears for our students and letting them make those mistakes in order to learn and experience success. In order to collaborate, to  share, and to be included.

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