Left to themselves, kids are willing to take chances, take risks, and make mistakes: a great recipe for success… But a recipe that’s torn up and thrown out in as kids are taught in school to fear and avoid mistakes.
In the system of education currently used across the U.S. by most public and private schools, as well as similar systems in other countries, students are actively penalized for making mistakes.
MISTAKE = RED X = Point Deducted = Lower Grade = Lower Average
And everyone knows what a lower average means – it affects the student’s self-image and public reputation, as well as his actual ability to get into his university of choice, etc.
The very framework of assessment in this system teaches students from a very young age to do everything possible to avoid making a mistake. This way, they get a “100” or “A+” on the test.
Great, right? Because not making any mistakes on our assignments is going to be what gets us through college and helps us succeed in life and make a significant contribution to our community, right?
When you phrase the question that way, it’s easy to see that it’s wrong. True success requires much more than the ability to memorize information, practice skills, and get the right answer on paper.
True success requires taking risks and doing new things, being creative and innovative. Mistakes play an essential role in this process. Why not teach children a different “mistake” equation?
MISTAKE = WILLING TO TAKE RISKS = GROWTH = CREATIVE = INNOVATIVE
Yet, year after year, we keep sending our kids to a system of education that kills innovation and creativity by teaching the kids that making mistakes is wrong and penalizing them for the mistakes they make. I’m not saying every individual teacher believes this; some teachers do a wonderful job at encouraging their students to try new things, make mistakes and learn from them. But even if your child has one or more individual teachers that take this approach, the system is still sending your child the opposite message and is still penalizing him for his mistakes, even if the teacher is telling him it’s “OK”.
In addition, the entire system is geared toward academia. Evaluation of students is based primarily, if not completely, on their academic knowledge. But very few long term careers are rooted in academia. If you enter the field of research, maybe (but even then, research becomes most successful when you’re willing to take risks!). But the vast majority of jobs in business, finance, the arts, and other fields, require creativity and innovation more than book knowledge… By overemphasizing academia (knowledge, memory, etc.) and squashing creativity and risk-taking, how effectively is our school system preparing our children for future success?
This mindset is so ingrained that we now tend to associate the very word “education” with fact-based knowledge. The word itself, however, is more insightful – it comes from the Latin educatio, which meant “bringing up” or “rearing.” True education is teaching someone to live, and giving them the tools they need to live well. We aren’t doing them a favor by overlooking talent and creativity in favor of factual recall.
For a more humorous, and spot on explanation of why today’s education is actually discouraging the discovery and development of talent, creativity and capacity in students, listen to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk.
We can’t change a system of education overnight, especially when we don’t have much say in how it runs… But knowing the weaknesses in our system of education and how they can affect our children gives us the ability to compensate some at home. We can help develop their creative minds.
Here are some ways parents can help their children develop their creative and innovative side, and view mistakes involved along the way in a more productive light:
1. Give your child a wide variety of resources. Have musical instruments, art supplies, technology, and other hands-on materials (wooden blocks, things they can build with, etc.), readily available. Encourage your child to use all of them so they experience a variety of learning and creative processes and have the opportunity to discover their talents and interests. Don’t pin your child down too soon – even if he seems to favor art materials as a toddler, keep exposing him to the other resources as well. As your child grows, however, you will begin to see consistent preferences and talents emerging. Once you have identified these, keep opening doors for your children in those directions, but also keep encouraging your child to try new things as well.
2. Expose your children to new situations and adventures. Bring them to new environments (parks, woods, beaches, lakes), for them to experiences the different sides of nature, discover, explore and experiment. Before bringing your child somewhere, ask them what they expect to find or happen and why. After going, ask your child what they found and discuss whether it was the same as what they expected or not, and why.
3. Give your children time to be creative. This is very important and sometimes a challenge in today’s fast paced society. It’s not enough to provide your children with material resources and opportunities. You need to give them time to explore, discover and develop their creative skills. This may mean arranging your schedule, as well as theirs to include a specific amount of time each afternoon, or at least several days a week, when they are engaging in these creative activities.
4. Give your child time to do what he wants. This is called open inquiry. Set certain parameters, but let your child choose. He wants to play with dirt? He wants to explore? He wants to try cooking something? You’d be surprised by the valid ideas your child can come up. Letting your child choose lets both you and him discover what he is naturally attracted to and where his capabilities are strongest. It also gives your child the go ahead to take risks and make mistakes. When you decide the activity, you are responsible for the choice. When you child decides the activity, he learns to be responsible for his own choices and, ultimately, learns how to choose wisely.
5. Step back when something goes wrong. Ok – your child made a choice and is now suffering from it. Something went wrong – he broke something, spent too much time on one activity and forgot to do his homework… whatever the problem may be. Parents instinctively tend to swoop down and want to fix everything for their child. This is actually the worst thing you can do – it teaches the child to be dependent on you and indicates to them that the mistake was a problem. You help your child much more by taking a step back and letting them take care of the situation. If they are too young to come up with their own ideas, you can help guide them through thinking of different possible solutions, letting them pick one and follow through with it. This is essential if they are too actually grow and learn from their mistakes and learn how to come up with creative solutions.
6. Give your kids the opportunity to debate. Start a casual debate with them at the kitchen table, or set up a “real” debate between your kids if they are close enough in age. Again, a great opportunity to come up with innovative ideas and learn how to express and apply them.
7. Require follow through. If you child has a great idea, like going on a family picnic, or making a very exotic Halloween costume, require them to follow through on it. This can be a valuable educational experience that teaches them how to plan, make predictions, react to the unexpected, etc. When they shoot too high and something takes more effort than they planned to put in, encourage them to keep going. They will come up with creative solutions to help them succeed, learn that they are more capable than they thought, and most likely think things through better in advance the next time!
8. Praise and encourage your child based on effort and progress, rather than performance. Emphasize the learning process your child went through, rather than the product they created. Rewarding a child for a level of performance makes them feel like they have to be perfect to please you; they will hesitate to take on something new if they can’t do it perfectly. Rewarding a child for effort encourages them to challenge themselves. They will eagerly take on new things in order to challenge themselves and will be able to reach higher levels of success as a result.
Remember – creativity can’t thrive without the room to make mistakes! Never make your child feel bad for a mistake; just make sure they learn from it.