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“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ~ Albert Einstein
When we’re small children, our mistakes are applauded. Our falling-down attempts to walk for the first time are cheered by our parents, giving us the courage to get up and try again. When we accidentally put our shirt on backwards, people smile and praise our independence. At this age, the world teaches us that failure is merely part of the journey to success.
But when we get to school, we quickly learn that mistakes are bad. Answers are right or wrong, true or false, bubbles to be filled in with a Number 2 pencil. The risk-taking that used to be rewarded is now punished, and we either give up or learn to stick with safe answers. Unfortunately, this black-or-white thinking doesn’t encourage learning. Instead, it fosters a fear of failure and discourages ingenuity.
Teachers are starting to worry, and “resiliency” is perhaps the latest buzzword in education. In June, the California Teacher’s Association published an article called "Teaching Students to Bounce Back." It argued that children are under more stress than ever, but lacking in “basic coping skills.” The article speculates that this loss of coping skills could be because “…years of testing and test preparation have robbed them of critical thinking skills and the ability to self-reflect.”
It’s no coincidence that anxiety among teenagers is on the rise. In her book, The Price of Privilege, Marilyn Levine tries to make sense of this trend: “When parents place an excessively high value on outstanding performance, children come to see anything less than perfection as failure. While most kids hang in there and try to meet those high expectations, more and more kids are opting out.” Students are afraid to try anything new, paralyzed by fears of appearing imperfect.
Allowing our children to make mistakes is the best way to combat this culture of perfectionism. We must remind them of what they knew as toddlers: mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process. Innovation and discovery can only be fostered if we give our children the freedom to fail. Schools can build resiliency by emphasizing exploration over correctness. Here are some of the classes in which we should expect and reward failure: if our students don’t make mistakes, they aren’t trying anything new.
Science teacher Marsenne Kendall tells parents at Back-To-School night: “"I embrace mistakes!! Mistakes are wonderful and very helpful for the learning process. In fact, many wonderful things have been discovered through so-called ‘mistakes.’” Indeed, discoveries such as penicillin, post-it notes, and x-rays are all important by-products of experiments that went “wrong.”
Mythbusters is a terrific example of scientists failing with enthusiasm. On this television show, researchers test urban legends by carrying them out in real life. More often than not, the experiments explode. But do the scientists get discouraged? Not according to co-star Adam Savage: “The cultural idea of a scientist is someone who sets up an experiment and then when it doesn't happen the way they expected says, ‘Oh my experiment is a failure.’ No scientist actually thinks like that. Any experiment that yields data is a viable experiment. Information is key, not what you expected the outcome to be.”
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