We all make mistakes; it’s just part of being human, right? And we all accept, on some level, that making mistakes is a necessary and important part of learning. But do our girls truly appreciate this? Are they happy to get things wrong in the classroom, even risking a lower grade, comfortable in the knowledge that making mistakes is part of a learning process that brings long-term benefits?
As educators at a high-achieving girls’ school, we understand that teaching our students to embrace error poses significant challenges. Perhaps the first step is for them to understand the true value of mistakes and to appreciate that they are not just a necessary evil but a crucial tool in learning.
To summarise neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath (1), our brains are predicting machines. When we make an error, our prediction comes into conflict with reality and generates an “error positivity”. This, in turn, triggers our internal error alarm, causing our brain to free up resources to deal with this conflict.
This makes us hyper-aware and hyper-focused, which creates a crucial opportunity for learning. But, of course, there is a catch: whether we will learn from an error depends on how we respond to it. Think of it like the ‘fight or flight’ response: we can either engage with the error, or we can ignore (or run away from) it.
This is where it gets really interesting for our girls. According to Horvath, the primary driver dictating whether we choose to engage or ignore error is personalisation. When we personalise error, that is, if we see it as a threat to our personal identity, we are more likely to ignore it, thus silencing our error alarm. Not only does this impede learning in that moment, but it makes us more likely to avoid situations in the future that could trigger the same error.
Horvath explains the dangers in this for a student who has been labelled as gifted: if she is constantly told how smart she is, and we create an expectation that she will always achieve highly, this becomes part of her personal identity. If she makes a mistake, she is therefore more likely to associate the error as a threat to her identity and thus avoid similar challenges in the future. Of course, this applies not only to gifted students but to girls prone to perfectionism, which represents a significant challenge for us.
So, how do we get girls to embrace and welcome error, rather than seeing it as a threat? One answer comes from the work of influential psychologist Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, on what she calls a:
growth” (versus a “fixed”) mindset (2).
In one experiment (3) , Dweck asked 400 students to take a short, easy test where nearly all of them did well. Half the students were then praised for being smart, while the other half were praised for having worked hard.
When asked to take a second test and given the option of choosing an easy or more challenging version, 90% of those praised for effort chose the harder task, while the majority of those praised for being smart chose the easier test.
The lesson in this is clear: if we praise effort over results, our girls will be less likely to see mistakes as a threat to their personal identity, because they are more likely to value an identity associated with effort. And if this is successful, they will be more inclined to embrace challenge and risk getting things wrong, thus leading to deeper and more long-lasting learning.
So, next time you pick your daughter up from school, rather than asking her, “How was your day?”, ask: “Did you make any good mistakes today?” And if she says yes, celebrate that mistake as a good thing!
Dean of Teaching and Learning (Middle School)
1 Cooney Horvath, J. (2019). Stop Talking, Start Influencing: 12 Insights from Brain Science to Make Your Message Stick. Chatswood, Australia: Exisle Publishing.
2 Sprouts Schools (2016, 16 April). Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset. https://youtu.be/KUWn_TJTrnU.
3 Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.