let’s talk about mistakes. not the kind you make when you go out and get high. those aren’t mistakes. those are predictable results. we’re talking about class — getting answers wrong. and this isn’t a problem. it’s good for you. yet you’re absolutely terrified and embarrassed by even the idea of making mistakes so it’s probably time to look at how this process actually works and what’s so good about it.
what is a useful mistake?
the first thing to figure out is whether a mistake is useful or not from an educational perspective. this really comes down to two questions — did you try and did you learn from the error? if the answer to either of this is yes, it’s at least somewhat-beneficial. if both can be answered yes, it was extremely useful. if both are no, which they often are, the mistake wasn’t worth making and you’ve wasted everyone’s time, especially your own.
did you try?
well, this is where the real input comes from. if you’re sitting in class and you don’t care whether you get the answer wrong, you’re not trying. there’s no engagement and your brain isn’t actively working to figure anything out. the answer probably won’t make any sense and the framework of the solution isn’t there. you’re not prepared to discover the correct answer and fit it in its place in your mind. if you haven’t gone through the process of searching for the answer, there’s no way the actual solution will ever stick in your memory.
here’s the other piece of why this is so important. you can guarantee it. the other question — did you learn from the mistake? — is a result. you might or it might mean nothing to you even when you hear the answer. you can’t guarantee it. but remember — the mistake is useful as long as either of the two questions is answered “yes”. this one can always be responded to in the affirmative so you can say without doubt you will always make useful mistakes if you put in the effort to give a thoughtful answer after a careful attempt and search for a valid solution, whether it’s correct or not.
did you learn?
this is the result of thinking about a solution then being told the answer. it’s impossible to climb a mountain in a single step. it takes strategic climbing — searching for the right path, following that path and, eventually, reaching the summit. information and understanding work in much the same way. you have to prepare your mind to receive it and store it. you can be told disparate random facts all day and you’ll remember only a handful of them — and those will be the ones whose places are already prepared in your memory. if you don’t do the work, the teacher telling you the answer is useless. you could have saved everyone the time and effort by just not showing up.
the other side of the coin, though, is that, if you have prepared the ground for the seed of correct information and understand to be planted, it will almost certainly blossom in your memory. your subconscious mind is an amazing place. it will take in answers and process them in the background, expanding your knowledge. in a vaguely-biblical phrase, it’s often said in education that “knowledge begets knowledge” — put in more modern language, knowing a little makes it possible to keep knowing more. not just learning more. simply knowing more — figuring things out. we have to have a framework to build on, shoulders to stand on to see the next step in the journey. but the more building blocks we construct in our mental pyramid of wisdom, the easier the next layer will be and the less input you’ll need from the outside world. it’s insurance against misinformation, fake news, even disinformation, bias, prejudice and misunderstanding. or ignorance. and that’s not good for anyone.
how does making a mistake work?
many teachers have a really awful questioning style. it goes like this. they make a statement. they then ask “does anyone know the answer?” and the first person to indicate they might be able to share the answer is called on to do exactly that, which usually results in the right answer. anyone who knew the answer is bored. anyone who didn’t is shamed. this isn’t learning. it’s just meaningless interaction — it would be more useful not to waste the time and simply lecture in a non-participatory way.
while we’re on the subject of useless teaching methods, mockery comes to mind. i’ve had plenty of teachers who thought it was entertaining to mock students for getting the wrong answers — or wearing unflattering clothing, hairstyles, coughing in class, having their phones ring in their bags, whatever. this is not education. this is inhuman torture, especially for adolescents, intentionally embarrassing them in front of their peers. it’s realistically just bullying with the added pain of it coming from someone in a position of power and trust. if you teach this way, stop. just stop now. you’er better than that. well, if you’re not better than that, you don’t deserve to be alive. hurting other people is worse than what animals do. i certainly hope you’re better than that.
here’s a better approach to asking questions. either create a pattern on paper or just do it in your head of when you will ask questions of each student. make it appear somewhat random if you like or simply go up and down rows and columns. whatever works for you. the order doesn’t matter. the key is predictability in the moment.
say the student’s name to make sure they know the question is coming and that they need to answer it. now make the simple statement to introduce the question (refreshing the topic in the student’s mind and giving them a fair chance), ask the actual question and give them a few seconds to answer. if they give the wrong answer, don’t respond harshly. thank them or move on and pick another student to try. two or three more students might be able to give it a shot — or, if the question is really complex, skip this step and simply explain it. but don’t belabor the point of the student getting it wrong. mistakes are embarrassing. if they get it right, praise them and repeat their answer for the class to emphasize it being correct. if they get it wrong, move on and draw attention away from them. they tried hard and there’s no shame in being incorrect. if you cause them shame, it’s your fault, not theirs.
when you make a mistake, though, you are priming the mind for the correct answer. if you ask a student, they’re not the only one making the mistake. everyone else in the room is thinking about the question and trying to answer it (ok, not everyone but everyone who wants to learn and that’s usually a good portion if you’re an engaging and engaged teacher — if your class is asleep, i promise you most of that is your fault and you can fix it). when the student (and everyone else who doesn’t know the answer) builds the search framework, it prepares the ground for the correct answer. now when you provide it (or if a student does and you repeat it for emphasis) the result will be exactly the same as if they had figured it out.
remember, memory is write-write. not read-write. every time we have a memory or thought, it’s written back the way we processed it in the moment. how it was stored before is erased and replaced. that means the wrong answer is replaced with the right one. if they make mistakes many thousands of times, repetition might be necessary to retrain the information. but, assuming the information is relatively fresh, this should solidify learning with few repetitions. it’s just as effective for most people to go through the thought process and search for an answer then be told the correct one as to actually figure it out for themselves.
so you’re a teacher (or you’re simply teaching someone one-on-one) and you want to use questions to your advantage. how do you do it? well, you teach the information in a way that is concise and straightforward. don’t try to confuse. just inform and explain in as much detail as necessary but no more. tangents are ok but try to keep on track as much as possible. when you’re ready to solidify the information (try to avoid going more than a few minutes without a question in a standard classroom situation), pick a student, ask a question, get an answer and, regardless of whether they get it right, share the correct answer. then move on. this should be an integral part of your ongoing teaching style. every few minutes, ask some questions. then tackle the next section of your lesson.
this is a very short discussion of mistakes. intentionally. because it’s not a complex subject, though you can certainly make it look that way. be direct. tell people what they should know. tell them to think. ask them questions and make sure they know the answers. we have a word for this process. we call it teaching. thanks for taking a few minutes to think with me. any questions? (can’t guarantee right answers — but i can certainly promise thoughtful mistakes…)