Once children realize that mistakes are not bad their anxiety is reduced and they become more open to the learning process. A child who is anxious to avoid mistakes inhibits himself and his learning. A child who understands that making mistakes is part of learning can be more open to new challenges.
More than just an inevitable part of learning, mistakes provide a powerful teaching tool. Teachers can use the mistakes the children make to teach the real learning skills of analysing and problem-solving. In order to find and correct a mistake, a child has to really think about what he is doing and what he wants to do; he cannot have a half-hearted approach to simply copying a correction or accepting that he “got it wrong”. He gets a sense of achievement when he has corrected the mistake himself (even with a little help and direction from his teacher). This helps him develop his confidence in facing new challenges for learning. When he has worked out where he went wrong and corrected it himself and feels proud and that feeling of pride increases his awareness, enhancing his memory for the correction.
Tips on How to Use Mistakes to Improve Learning:
Here are just a few ideas. You can use them to get a better understanding of how to use your children’s mistakes in different arenas and the power of using their mistakes as a teaching tool.
Spelling: Let the children correct their own work. They can use a red pen and use the teacher’s template to find the correct spelling. They write the correction in red next to the error and again below. Then they swap books and mark each others to check if all mistakes had been found, writing the correction in a different colour once next to the error on their friend’s book. Instead of simply getting a mark for how many were correct the first time, the children get a token if they found and corrected all their mistakes and their classmate found no extra mistakes. If the classmate finds an uncorrected spelling error, the first child must write that word out four times.
After this has been done, divide the class into teams and each team gets to ask the other the spelling words (every child must get to spell an equal proportion of the words). The winning team is the one who got the most correct first time asked, added to any tokens children in each team earned for finding and correcting all their mistakes (children who made no mistakes also get a token for that).
Teaching spelling this way uses visual memory and figure-ground perception (looking for and checking each word). It also uses muscle-memory (writing the corrections builds muscle memory in the hand and finger muscles). Marking their own work with a red pen reduces the negativity often associated with the teacher’s red crosses on work. Having team challenge directly afterwards, builds auditory memory for spelling and the competitive element increases enthusiasm and helps focus attention (this is particularly important with ADHD children).
Maths: Watch the child try to do his sums after you have taught him the method. If you see him about to make a mistake wait, watch, let him make it and wait a little longer to see if he recognises it. If he does see his mistake, praise him for finding it and watch to see how he solves it. If he cannot manage on his own, show him how to go back to the beginning and check each step. If he then manages, praise him for not only getting it right but also learning how to find and correct his mistakes. When he has to find and correct his own mistake, he not only reinforces the correct method but also develops his analytical skills and improves his ability to be organised in his work.
If he struggles to see what he did wrong because he has not quite understood, you will know that you have to go back and re-teach him. I find that it is important to take some of the responsibility for this onto myself and away from the child. I will say “we didn’t get that quite right; I need to find another way for me to help you to know how to do it”. This shows the child that we are partners in the learning business and it reduces his stress when unable to remember what was taught. This technique should also be used for visual analytical games (like ‘Draughts’ and ‘Battleships’).
Behaviour: Children often get into trouble because they do something silly, rather than because they were intentionally naughty. If we realise that their behaviour was effectively a mistake, we can use the behaviour as a learning opportunity instead of simply getting angry or frustrated. Point out the repercussions of the behaviour. For example, if he ran and tripped and broke your favourite vase; point out that it cannot be fixed and that it happened as an accident that would not have occurred if he had not run. Make him clean the mess and ask him how he thinks he can make up for his mistake. This makes it impossible for him to pass blame away or project anger onto you for getting cross when “it was just a mistake”. It makes it clear that he is responsible for his actions. This helps him take develop a sense of responsibility that we want all members of society to have. If you simply yell at him that you have told him a thousand times not to run in the house he can deflect his sense of culpability by becoming aggrieved at your angry response. Instead of him realising that it was his behaviour and his mistake that caused the broken vase, the lesson can be lost in a shouting match with him stomping off feeling misunderstood and angry. The next time he runs in the house it will be easier to remind him if how the previous time he broke the vase. You will have changed your role from nagging parent, to guiding and directing parent.
Everyone in life makes mistakes. We need to teach our children not to be fearful of making mistakes because that will seriously limit their learning and prevent them reaching their real potential in life. We also need to teach our children to accept responsibility for their mistakes and to find ways of correcting them. That helps to build thinking skills such as organisation, planning and attention. It also helps our children to grow into adults with strong self esteem and moral fibre; the type of person of whom every parent and teacher can be proud.
Sharon has worked with children for decades and has written posts to share her expertise and experience with parents and teachers. CLICK HERE to see some of her other informative posts.
Take the pain out of learning to read. Sharon has developed a unique and effective reading program which uses occupational therapy techniques. CLICK HERE to find out more about it.