February 12, 2013

The Right to be Wrong

As parents, teachers and tutors, one of the hardest things we have to do is to allow the children in our lives to make mistakes. We want these young people to feel good about themselves and their achievements, and to see them struggling with their own limitations (perceived or real) is truly challenging.

Yet there is a good deal of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that indicates that students who are not allowed to struggle, and sometimes even fail, end up on the short end of the learning stick. In a 2011 blog on the education-focused website Edutopia, author Alina Tugend, who also writes for The New York Times, discussed the value of allowing the students in our lives to make mistakes. Her piece, aptly entitled The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom, contains examples of lessons and research that can be extended beyond school walls to include our homes and tutoring locales, for the message is the same across the board: students need to learn how to face adversity if they are to become resilient, open-minded learners.


Tugend cites one extensive research study out of Stanford University that drives this point home and which has even become the basis of a change in academic policy in a number of schools. The two-part study, conducted by Professor Carol Dweck, began with a large pool of fifth graders taking an “easy short test” on which all of them did well, according to Dweck. The group was then divided in two, and half the kids were told that they were “really smart” while the other half were told they “[had worked] really hard.” The entire test group was then given a choice in taking a second test: either another easy test on which they were practically guaranteed a high score, or a test which was likely to prove more challenging and presented a greater risk of losing points. The majority of students who had been told they were smart chose the easier test while a whopping 90% of the “hard working” students chose the more difficult one.

What are the lessons we can take away from this, particularly in relation to students who have executive function issues? First of all, praise needs to be focused on what a student does and not who s/he is, and it needs to be specific if it is to be effective (something to which Engaging Minds tutors can enthusiastically attest). Secondly, we need to encourage children to try new things or things at which they might not initially be successful. Dweck speaks about the “fixed mindsets” of students who believe they are not good at something and that their mistakes only serve to validate their impression of themselves as underachievers. This is in sharp contrast to those students who have a “growth mindset” and see their mistakes as part of the process of improving in areas in which they may not begin as superstars but in which they can definitely improve with effort – including learning by initially doing something incorrectly or less well.

So it is our job, as parents, teachers and tutors to encourage our students to be risk-takers in the classroom, at home, and during our tutoring sessions. By allowing children to make mistakes (and, yes, even fail) and learn through these challenges that hard work can pay off with improvement and genuinely enhanced self-esteem, we are helping create resilient learners who will not allow the obstacles in their way to impede their educational process.