Mistakes are inevitable in any learning situation. In fact, they are vital to helping us understand the content better. When a student makes a mistake, it indicates to the teacher that there is a misconception that needs to be resolved. Mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. 

When a child does a mistake many of us would instinctively dive into correcting that mistake by showing the student the right way of doing it. However, a more effective approach would be to understand why and how that mistake was made by asking the student to explain his or her thought process behind the way they did the question. This would enable you to understand the nature of the misconception and address it by correcting the misconception, explaining to them how the mistake had occurred and what they should do to ensure that it does not happen again.

Many a times during my lessons I will come across students who would have done a mistake which confounds me. Most times I would be able to figure out how or why the mistake could have occurred but inevitably there are times when I cannot decipher the thinking that led to the mistake. Hence, the next step that I would take would be to ask them why or how the mistake had occurred. This is where it gets interesting. More often than not, the response to that question is a stony silence. I repeat my question. More silence. I ask the same question in a different way and still there is no answer. Perhaps they need more time I tell myself and wait patiently but a reply does not seem to be forthcoming even after a few minutes of cajoling. 

Upon deeper reflection I realized that when children are asked, “Why did you do this?” they are often fearful of the negative consequences of answering that question and consequently they choose not to speak about it. Close your eyes and remember the messages you received from parents and teachers about mistakes when you were a child.  When you made a mistake, did you receive the message that you were stupid, inadequate, bad, a disappointment, a klutz? By using the above strategies, we would take the fear out of making mistakes, expose them to the value of these mistakes—and learning from them in a safe environment.

This reflection induced me to change my approach. When faced with silence after the first instance of questioning I would tell them the following three things.

  • I am not angry that they got it wrong.
  • I expect what they are going to tell me is not going to sound right or make sense
  • I only want to understand how the mistake happened and then help them fix it

Amazingly, this approach worked every time to unlock that resolute silence and get them talking. However, it is very important that you stick to what you promised by,

  • listening to them patiently,
  • questioning further for clarity,
  • smiling and thanking them for their reply,
  • looking visibly relieved and saying that you finally understand how the mistake occurred and
  • explaining to them the nature of their misconception and correcting it

If you follow these steps often enough children will shed their fear of making mistakes and will be more open to discussing them.

When parents, tutors and teachers give children negative messages about mistakes, they usually mean well. They are trying to motivate children to do better for their own good. However, they haven’t taken time to think about the long-term results of their methods and how the decisions children make stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I hope you try the strategies above and share with me how it worked for you. I would be pleased to respond to them