Making mistakes is critical to learning

11 October 2017

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

It’s well known that the most successful entrepreneurs, scientists, inventors, writers and sports people have all failed and failed often. Read any interviews or biographies and you find failure is not only acknowledged but celebrated. In 2006, legendary Chicago Bulls basketballer Michael Jordan was featured in a NIKE commercial where he reflects on all the shots he missed, the games he lost for the team, and then reveals that those failures were critical to his success. Failing is critical to learning. Learning from mistakes is how we achieve mastery, whether that is in a subject, sport, or anything else. Yet the concept of failure is not something typically celebrated in schools. In fact, failure has been turned into something to be avoided at all costs.

Recently, a Victorian Girls Grammar School received national media coverage for dedicating a week to celebrating students’ mistakes. Any school that works to encourage resilience in students needs to be applauded. However, we need more than a week out of an entire school year dedicated to normalising mistakes in learning.

One of the most complex things that a child will ever do is learn to walk and talk, and yet, that is achieved in their own time, without a curriculum or a learning plan. It happens simply by trying, failing and then trying again until they finally work it all out.  What they do receive is loads of encouragement from parents and grandparents. Stumbles and mispronounced words are all celebrated as part of the discovery process. Do we still celebrate mistakes in the same way when that child reaches Year 6 or Year 12? The key is in the type of feedback we are providing. Is it enabling learning so that students can grow in knowledge and confidence or is it passing judgement?

While attempts have been made within the current model of schooling to reduce the stigma of ‘failure’ such as A-E reporting, we still have minimum benchmarks and punitive measures in place. What message are we sending to students who don’t achieve Band 8 in Year 9? Are they failed learners or products of a failed system? I argue the latter but it is difficult to change beliefs if you don’t change the structures and processes that demonise failure.

A new model of schooling is needed that sees inquiry and exploration start early and continue throughout secondary school. We need a curriculum that is shaped by teachers in response to student interests and the world around them. We also need teachers who are always exploring new ways to reach their students, even if that means that they makes mistakes on the way to them becoming better practitioners.

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta

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