These are the words of own of my worst nightmares. A professor asks a question. I give a thoughtful answer. The feedback on the answer is negative. The fear of being wrong is both motivational and paralyzing. The motivation is to think before I speak. Double-check my answers and ask myself, “how do I know I’m right?”. The paralyzing part is that sometimes, I can’t know if I’m right or not so I don’t want to answer at all.
It is easy to find lots of quotes expressing the wisdom of learning from our mistakes. We know this, but it still stings when we discover we aren’t as brilliant as we thought we were.
In this TEDtalk, Diana Laufenberg says,
The main point is that, if we continue to look at education as if it’s about coming to school to get the information and not about experiential learning, empowering student voice and embracing failure, we’re missing the mark. And everything that everybody is talking about today isn’t possible if we keep having an educational system that does not value these qualities, because we won’t get there with a standardized test, and we won’t get there with a culture of one right answer. We know how to do this better, and it’s time to do better.
During her talk, Laufenberg describes methods of authentic learning where learning from mistakes is an important part of the process. If we are doing it right, learning involves making mistakes. As instructors, we may use questioning as a way to assess how much our students have learned course material. It feels great when students answer correctly, but what about when the answer is incorrect? In their chapter on Questions and Questioning Technique, Amin and Eng describe this dilemma,
Teachers are responsible for correcting mistakes and guiding the students in the proper direction. These are delicate moments in teacher-student interactions and deserve to be dealt with carefully. The teacher’s dilemmas in these situations vary from inclination to favor discovery learning in the form of continuing guided questioning to adopting a more humane stance by maintaining silence or responding in a neutral manner. With careful probing and guiding questions it may be possible to elicit the correct response, but there are risks of potential embarrassment and eventual damage to the teacher-student relationship. Adopting a more humane approach, although more compassionate and sympathetic, is unlikely to correct the students’ wrong responses and is pedagogically inadequate.
The authors go on to describe 4 approaches to minimize student embarrassment:
- Providing ‘opportunity space’ for revisions by not responding immediately and thus allowing the student time to come up with another answer
- Asking subsequent questions in a manner that contain clues to the first question leading the student to the correct answer
- Re-framing the questions so that the wrong answers become correct, and
- Treating the wrong answer as plausible but in need of further elaboration and consideration
Of these suggestions, the first one is most difficult for me. I want to help a struggling student, but a better approach is silence instead of jumping in with a “correct” answer. There is value in learning from our mistakes and we should allow the students the opportunity to learn. Our emphasis on learning from mistakes will help take away any negative feelings associated with making mistakes.