This is a view reinforced by John Hattie in Visible Learning for Teachers where he states,”Feedback thrives on error but error should not be considered the privilege of the lower-achieving students.” Too often schools, in their desire to get students to reach objectives, concentrate on the students not meeting the objectives so the lower achieving students get most constructive feedback. Higher achieving students, for whom the objectives are more easily achievable, often get little feedback and are allowed to coast. These students can begin to view the goal of education to be getting a good grade rather than to challenge themselves to move beyond the known. The consequence that this has when these higher achieving students first encounter something they find demanding, and are unable to cope with what they view as failure, is unfortunately all to familiar.
Both Hattie and McLean touch on a dilemma that many of us face as teachers and as parents. We desperately want children to succeed, its why we went into teaching in the first place, yet we know that long term success often only comes as the result of reflection upon short term set backs. How then do we create a school culture where everyone has the confidence to make mistakes and be supported to exploit the learning potential of their errors to the full? As far back as 1967 the Plowden Report in the UK summed up this dilemma as the " the twin pitfalls of demanding too much and expecting too little" (Plowden Report, 1967, p. 311).
Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets has greatly influenced my thinking this area and if you have not read it yet I would encourage you to do so. Dweck speaks of there being two types of mindsets that a person can adopt when confronted with a new or challenging task. The first of these is a fixed mindset where a person believes that success is the result of fixed factors over which they have little control e.g. intelligence or talent. As a result of this mindset people tend to give up easily when presented with a challenging engagement. Either the challenge reinforces their existing belief that they are not talented or clever enough or, equally devastatingly attacks their self perception of themselves as being intelligent or talented. Opposite to the fixed mindset is the growth mindset where people view themselves as constantly able to improve and attribute success to effort and hard work more than to being intelligent or talented. Those with a growth mindset embrace challenges and persist with them welcoming feedback on how to improve.
One key point Dweck makes is the importance of the language used by adults in reinforcing the values of a school and its attitudes to achievement and intelligence. It is very easy for us to tell a child who has been successful “Well done you’re so clever,“ “Your such a good artist” etc but these type of comments give a clear message to students that if they don’t do well they are stupid or if the picture doesn’t work out they can’t draw. Think also of the message we are giving by labeling students ‘Talented and Gifted.’
Much better to give feedback that is specific and actionable “You really thought about the options there” “You’ve really concentrated on your use of colour in these pictures.’
Setting up this culture from the earliest years of school creates a learning environment where mistakes can be dispassionately looked at and learnt from. To use the colouring feedback above had the painting not worked out it allows a conversation of “This part doesn’t look right why do you think that is?” “Because I didn’t concentrate on my colours and painted it all black.”
How much more effective for developing the confident thinkers would all schools be if they made clear that mistakes are encouraged?
How much livelier would the discussion be in every classroom be if all students were clear that the point of learning is, not to feel complacent about what you got right, but to feel inspired to learn by what you got wrong?
If you liked this blog entry you will enjoy the You Tube video below which I originally discovered on the Mindsetworks website.