Error as a chance to learn

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Nothing can be learnt without going wrong, like riding a bike or driving. Learning to fail is an essential part of education.

In traditional education, error is penalised and for students often implies a feeling of guilt and shame at not having done something right. “Error is usually experienced as failure”, declares Imma Marín, the authoress of ¿Jugamos? Cómo el aprendizaje lúdico puede transformar la educación  [Shall we play? How playful learning can transform education] and founder and president of Marinva, “Not passing is failure. Exam errors are still corrected in red, a symbol of ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. Repeating a piece of work because it wasn’t done correctly is taken as a punishment”.

However, very often the great successes are preceded by a series of failures. Products like Velcro and post-its are the result of something turning out wrong. In the world of start-ups and entrepreneuring, they talk of failing forward and here failed attempts are considered something to boast about.

Students who don’t learn to make mistakes will fail in life

“When a student makes a mistake because they have not paid enough attention, because they are tired, or because they have not understood the explanationpunishing the error is a practice that can demotivate both student and teacher”, says Imma Marín. 

Many students are so fearful of failure that they avoid any kind of risk, and when something goes wrong, their anxiety levels go off the charts . A decade ago, universities like Stanford and Harvard already coined the term failure deprived to refer to students’ inability to manage the slightest adversity.

Some educational institutions have begun to take a hand in the matter, like the ‘fund for failure’ offered by Davidson College, in which grants are given to students who want to develop a creative project without the imperative of the idea working, or the Thrive app from the University of Texas – Austin, which helps students to deal with daily disappointments and joys through a series of videos and motivational meetings. 

It has always been taken for granted that it is something natural to learn from our mistakes, but reality shows quite the opposite. Helicopter parents who manage their children’s micro-frustrations along with the pressure of the social networks result in children and youngsters incapable of assuming failure as part of life.

The authoress of ¿Jugamos? believes that, “If as students, they do not experience error as part of the learning process, the motivation falls and self-esteem along with it. Instead of making an effort to improve, discouragement springs forth”. It is therefore necessary to redefine what receiving a good education means.

We learn to fail

Helping pupils to fail is not just a question of making them feel better, but rather a question of thinking like a scientist. “Error provides me with the data I need to go on. With these data, I can alter my performance and try again”. When learning is understood as an ongoing process, there is space for failure. This does not mean that this is the goal.

We must not create an atmosphere where being wrong is the most frequent option, but rather one in which students can progress in the learning process. “Error is an opportunity, Imma declares. “I see it in playing. When you throw away a card and realise your strategy is wrong, you wait for your chance to correct your mistake. If you get through one screen and have only won one star out of three, you try again to get the rest. In games, mistakes make you want to repeat and do it better, and this is key to turning error into an opportunity”. The founder of Marinva is very clear about it. “Errors must be experienced with the seriousness of a game that gives you the courage to want to repeat and do better”.

Teaching to be wrong: a practical guide

  1. We distinguish awareness of the process so students do not see failure as a whole, but rather the sum of several parts. We help the child to separate knowledge from performance.
  2. Define the dimension, impact and nature of the error, clarifying the extent of the “failure”: lesson, test, class, project … And whether correction is or is not possible.
  3. Help them to discover what caused the error and once identified, celebrate the discovery as a triumph: we have found the problem!
  4. Stress iteration and progress more than the end result, by creating an atmosphere of continuous learning and growth.
  5. Point out errors. Importance is often taken away from the error in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. However, part of the work as teachers consists of pointing out the error and making the pupil aware that they have to correct it.
  6. Let’s challenge them. If they always know the answer, it is too easy; they get used to being right and knowing everything. They need to be able to struggle. Let’s make a controversial comment, or a reflexive question over which they have to get involved. 
  7. Let’s ask, ask, ask. One question is not enough, let’s continue questioning them. 
  8. Let’s offer opinions. Through a multitude of mistakes, they understand that things could be done differently. Let’s show them their capacity to make and change decisions.
  9. Let them taste success. After several mistakes, they have probably got it right for themselves, but if not, let’s help them.
  10. Let’s motivate them. Let’s offer them a pat on the back, saying “Good job”. These words from a teacher or parent will be a reward, especially when they have been on the rollercoaster of failure and success.

By Judit Bara

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