Over the last few decades, the importance of allowing children to make mistakes as an essential part of the learning process has been marginalized, due at least partly to a grading system that penalizes mistakes instead of encouraging them, and societal pressures.
The Problem with the Grading System:
The usual grading system that is used in the United States and numerous other countries by the majority of schools, as well as many homeschooling families, involves assigning a letter or number grade for each assessment, followed by averaging to reach a final grade. This grading system has two main weaknesses:
- The grading system only examines the final outcome, not the effort that went into it. As a result, it marginalizes the learning process, which is most important in terms of skill development and evaluative thinking skills. This system uses one measurement for all, giving no indication of a child’s holistic development. For example, a child that gets a “C” but is putting in an incredible amount of effort has a much greater chance of succeeding than the child currently getting an “A”, but putting forth no effort. Yet the child working hard gets no credit for his effort, and a third party reading the grades receives an incomplete picture of the performance of both children.
- This system discourages children from failing rather than encouraging them to succeed (yes – there’s a difference). A child that receives a poor grade sees it as something negative; it is indicative of failure and shame. A child can easily get depressed over their continued “failures” and cease trying at all… not because they are incapable, but because they see themselves through the wrong prism. The children that need the most encouragement receive the least from this grading system.
On the standard assessment – MISTAKE = RED X = POINT DEDUCTED = POOR GRADE. Children receive a direct penalization for every mistake made. And, no matter how hard the child works, that mistake will never be completely erased because of the system’s use of averages. A child with A-level abilities, performing at A-level at the end of the year, might receive a B or even a C due to mistakes made at the beginning of the year. Again: penalization and an incomplete representation of the child’s abilities. Even if comments talking about the child’s efforts and abilities accompany the report, the comments won’t make their way up through the system; the grade will.
Unfortunately, a poor grade negatively influences a child in multiple ways:
- Some children are pressured by their parents or others to get good grades. A mistake leading to a poor grade could make the child feel like they are failing or disappointing their parents.
- A child’s reputation is often affected by their grade, amongst their siblings or classmates and teachers if they learn outside the home.
- A child’s ability to continue their education is affected by their grade; a poor grade could prevent a child from going to their university of choice.
- A child’s self-esteem can also be negatively affected by their poor grade.
In addition to a system of education that strongly discourages children from making mistakes and places children that don’t make mistakes on a pedestal, our society at large discourages mistakes as well. In every area, it upholds an image of perfection. Everyone runs ragged trying to reach that level of perfection. The entire world of social media these children live in revolves around creating a “perfect” profile. The more perfect the profile, the more popular you are. Media and advertizing always show “perfection” – the perfect model, the perfect actor, the perfect athlete…
There’s little room in our society for respecting the “less than perfect”. When’s the last time you saw a picture of a model with a blemish? It’s not because they don’t exist, but because society doesn’t let us see it. This is a large part of the problem. The “perfection” children see all around them is false. No matter how hard they try, they will never be able to attain the perfection expected of them and, unfortunately, society doesn’t show them the real human beings they can become in a respectful light. The result: children fear failure in society – to be accepted, they must be perfect, no mistakes… From a young age, they are being taught to hide their mistakes and failures; they are already creating false images of themselves…
Why Does it Matter?
Unfortunately discouraging mistakes does not produce the intended effect of encouraging perfection. It in fact marginalizes skills that are essential for true success. The willingness to make mistakes and learn from them is necessary for innovative thinking.
Fear of failing (making mistakes) leads to fear of trying new things, which leads to lack of creativity, which leads to lack of problem solving skills, which leads to lack of innovation.
Making true progress, in any field involves treading on untouched ground. This requires a willingness to take risks and be responsible for them, even when the risks open up the possibility of failure. Worst case scenario is that you’re back where you began – no worse off than you were before. Best case scenario: you conquer ground, developing new ideas and innovative practices. By limiting children’s opportunities to make mistakes and learn how to handle them, we discourage them from taking the risks needed to discover or develop something new, and thereby limit their potential scope of success.
Their “grade” or outcome performance as recorded based on their assessments might be high, but they aren’t upward movers; the scope of their performance is heavily limited by their comfort zone. On the other hand, the child that can’t produce a picture perfect assessment but is thoroughly acquainted with and engaged in the learning process, and dedicated to improvement at risk of failure has a much higher chance of real success in life. These children have learned to take chances; they will be willing to take the chance at innovation.
Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., professor of Psychology at Stanford University defines this difference in terms of “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset”. She concludes:
“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” (Dweck on the Growth Mindset, 2012)
Carol Dweck further directed studies which demonstrated that when two groups of students took the same assessment but received different types of feedback, their future performance differed based on the type of feedback they received. A group of 400 elementary students were given an assessment; half of them received performance based feedback (how smart they were), while the other half received effort based feedback (how hard they worked). The same students were then offered a choice for a second assessment: they could choose between two tests, one easier and one harder. Ninety percent of the students that received feedback based on effort choose the harder test, while the majority of the students that were affirmed for being “intelligent” chose the easier test. (cf. Alina Tugend, 2011)
CONCLUSION: Children that receive feedback and encouragement based on their effort are willing to take risks to reach higher levels of success. Think: growth mindset. Those that receive feedback based on product outcome alone pass by opportunities for greater success out of fear of possible failure. Think: fixed mindset.
While the growth mindset most benefits children in the long run, producing lifelong learners and innovators, the standard grading system and societal expectations discussed above foster and reinforce the fixed mindset.
What Does This Mean for Educators (Parents and Teachers)?
1. Educators should actively present students with opportunities to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them.
This challenges educators because it requires more involvement from the child in the learning process. A lecture-assignment-test method leaves little room for evaluative thinking, predictions, hypotheses, problem solving and innovation. Learning through inquiry, research, projects or other engagement based learning techniques provide the child with the framework they need to learn, evaluate and innovate at the same time. In this framework, a mistake can be a step in discovering the real solution, rather than a “lost point” on the assignment.
Furthermore, these methods teach students that their innovative ideas and unique perspectives matter; they have something unique to offer and can discover it through hard work and personal involvement. While this is very beneficial for the child, it requires a lot more effort on the part of the educator who has to ensure that the child meets certain learning standards and objectives, while leaving the learning process open to student input and not directing the learning too rigidly. In other words, instead of being a protagonist imparting information as in lecture based instruction, the educator becomes a facilitator or guide, designing a learning process for the child, who becomes the protagonist.
2. SHOW your children that it’s OK to make mistakes by acknowledging mistakes they see you make, rather than hiding them.
Talk to them about your mistakes, what you’ve learned from them and how they’ve helped you. Let them see that you view mistakes as something normal and as a catalyst for growth. They teach you and they challenge you.
3. Educators should design their instruction around “significant concepts” or broad ideas that matter in real life.
In other words, the lesson should not revolve around the facts, but the importance of the facts. What is it you want the child to know about this topic 20 years from now? They’re not going to remember all of the facts they study; they won’t need to use many of them once they graduate. What will they remember? What will they need to use? Significant concepts.
4. Encourage growth, not “success”.
“Success” is a relative term. Many children define success as a good grade which, again further entrenches the child in the fixed mentality. Put the term “success” aside and encourage the child to GROW. Encourage them to TRY HARD. Encourage them to CHALLENGE themselves. Gradually, the child will begin to associate success with growth, progress and innovation.
5. Develop a more effective system of assessment and grading that fosters growth mentality instead of fixed mentality.
Evaluations should reflect a holistic understanding of the student, including the all-important learning process and the extent to which the student engages himself. Such systems of assessment do exist. Finland, for example, has a much more holistic system for assessing the students; assessments take the learning process into account, and involve research and inquiry. The assessments are often open-ended, thus leaving more room for student involvement, and frequently involve self-assessments and written reflections on learning.
If you are teaching your child at home and have more freedom in the type of assessments your give your child and how you evaluate them, make the most of that, and use means of evaluation that take into account effort, problem solving and other skills, in addition to content mastery. If you are working within a school that is required to use a traditional letter/number based grading system to meet local national requirements, you won’t be able to change the system, but you can at least base those grades on assessments designed to encompass the learning process, inquiry, research, demonstration and opportunities for self-evaluation.
If you implement several of these strategies, by the end of a year, your child will have had continual opportunities to make mistakes because they will have had continual opportunities to use higher level thinking skills (evaluation), and innovate. Your child will have actually MADE mistakes and learned how to handle them and grow from them. Reflecting on a mistake brings us that much closer to the truth. After making a few mistakes and growing from them, your child will perceive mistakes as something normal, necessary and helpful in the processes of learning and innovation, and should be that much closer to establishing the growth mindset that will help them continue maximizing their learning capacities.