Initially, my enthusiasm for mistake making was probably slightly dented when I was working in a secondary school in Surrey. Students involved in a business enterprise project decided to set up a car valeting service for staff vehicles. I had my reservations, although I thought, foolishly, what could possibly go wrong? We gathered together the equipment required and I retreated to the safety of a morning of lessons and some staff room banter, while cars were cleaned with a flurry of sponges, soap suds and leaky green hose pipes. Little did I know that my merry band of boys, employed in the ‘Lookin’ Good Car Wash Company’ had used their initiative and decided stubborn stains could be more effectively removed with wire wool – borrowed from the DT department. The rest of my day was spent apologising to colleagues and reinvesting the company’s takings into re-spraying car body panels.
Much of the research carried out by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, focuses on fixed and growth mindsets and it is true that too many children from a very early age believe they are better at some subjects than others. A focus on test results reinforces this, and motivation for ‘weaker’ subjects declines. True, some of us may never be strong at English, Maths or PE, but surely we have to maintain a love for the subject and not extinguish this with an endless focus on testing, targets and negative comments from teachers and parents? Children have brains that are so malleable we have to ensure we constantly emphasize the value of taking a chance, making mistakes and relishing the fun this can bring.
We have responsibility as teachers to ask interesting, deep questions, plan challenging interactive lessons and continue to ask how schools assess students’ progress. To some degree our hands are tied by senior school admissions, curriculum constraints, examinations and parent expectations, but that shouldn’t prevent us pursuing the child’s best interests, whenever we get an opportunity. Too often education punishes errors, rather than rewarding risk-taking.
I’m sure no one intended to teach children to be so reliant on our help at every step. The stakes seem to be higher than ever, with no room in our or their busy schedule to play a board game, get muddy in the woods, go for a walk or eat a meal together.
This has not been helped by the way we live now, with information surplus rather than scarcity. When I studied for my O levels, I can clearly remember the excitement every month as my parents collected tokens for a free encyclopaedia, building to an impressive set of 12 – unfortunately a complete set of Britannica was a little beyond their means – and just to give you an insight into my family life, this special offer followed fast on the heels of the free wine glasses and highball tumblers given away by Shell petrol stations at the same time. These purple bound books suddenly opened up a treasure trove of fascinating facts, which needed to be discovered using an index, read and then carefully recycled to complete my homework or revision. Students can now ask Siri, Cortana and OK Google, or a host of other online assistants, and nine times out of ten will get the answer delivered verbally or on screen in less than a second, thus eliminating the need to visit a library or bother a parent.
Recently I taught a class who virtually paralysed their own progress by focusing almost entirely on the final outcome rather than enjoying and learning from the journey they were on. This group were able, motivated and keen to do well. I had taught some of them for several years and they knew and trusted me. They understood the challenge and commenced work on this open-ended task, which encouraged them to work in groups, solve a real-world problem and present their idea several weeks later in a Dragons’ Den type format. Some constantly questioned how I was going to assess their work, whether this would be shared with parents or written about in a future report. Was there a particular software programme or approach they should adopt? To the point they wasted much of their lesson time and presented a disappointing final solution.
This is partly why I introduced a new subject to the curriculum, called Learn 2 Learn, at my current school Pennthorpe.
In these lessons the entire focus is on learning styles, creative thinking and appreciating each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Deliberately, we do not report to parents on this subject, I rarely assess pupils, but maintain a relentless focus on risk-taking, active learning and having fun. Like a welcome disease, this approach is catching on across the school. Only last term I spotted the following on a window of an English classroom – “missteaks being made in here”. Truly great stuff, and sets the tone for a positive atmosphere where children at least begin lessons with a can-do attitude.
Perhaps we should move to a model where we see learners more as apprentices working under a Teacher/Master, allowed to make mistakes and then being given an opportunity to write a book or solve a complex project, eventually developing their own style and view point.
We need to be honest and accept children will fail sometimes and let themselves and us down. Their lives will be riddled with disappointments, low marks in tests, a heavy defeat at FIFA16 or the sudden death of much loved animals in Minecraft. Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed; I have just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” How we react shapes how they deal with these issues in the future, and we need to turn these mistakes into learning opportunities.
Over-parenting is a very common phenomenon in today’s society and is an attempt to improve a child’s current and future success. We live in an age of “helicopter” parenting and some have a desire to be super-involved in their children’s upbringing. However, sometimes this can undermine a child’s confidence and ability to work independently. Children need to learn responsibility for their actions, rather than a sense of entitlement, which can affect the critical relationship between a teacher, pupils and parents themselves.
I am proud to work in a school that encourages students to take risks, make gaffs and be responsible for their actions. I want students and teachers to work hard together to achieve a common goal – learning – and there is no reason why this cannot be enjoyable, providing them with the necessary skillset to be happy and successful in anything they choose to do.