Building a Culture of Error in the Classroom

November 2, 2016 Christopher Ruel

raised hands2.jpgHave you ever praised a student for making a mistake in class? Demonstrating that errors are part of the education process and creating an atmosphere in which it is safe for students to struggle is one of the suggested strategies from the book Teach Like A Champion. As an educator, it is valuable to understand where a student or group of students might be having trouble. And, it’s equally important for students who might not readily speak up to know that they are not the only ones in class who are struggling. Read on to this excerpt taken from the ebook Culture of Error written by Doug Lemov, author of Teach like a Champion.

A classroom is a culture established through the words and actions not only of the teacher but also of the students. A teacher alone cannot establish a culture in which it is safe to struggle and fail. If snickers greet a classmate who gets an answer wrong, for example, or if impatient hands wave in the air while another student is trying to answer, very little that a teacher does will result in students’ exposing their errors to anyone.

Shaping how students respond to one another’s struggles is, therefore, a must, and is a process that starts with teaching students the right way to handle common situations before they happen. A classroom culture that respects error, normalizes it, and values learning from it, is one of the characteristics of a high-performing classroom.

Take a moment to examine the language teachers use to communicate to their students their expectations about making mistakes. Consider, first, Bob Zimmerli, who stopped his class after his observation revealed a consistent error (failing to combine like terms) among his students. “I’m so glad you made that mistake,” Bob said to the class, calling them together to reteach. “It’s going to help me to help you.” Message: the mistake is normal, valuable in a way, and a source of insight. Bob is not bothered by the mistakes but communicates that he expects them and that when they happen, he wants to know about them.

Compare that to something more typical, along the lines of, “Guys, I should not be seeing people with –2x and +2x in the same equation. You know by now to combine like terms.” In that case, students will quickly learn that if they are making mistakes, they are likely to be a source of disappointment to their teacher. As a result, students are likely to respond by trying to conceal their errors. That doesn’t mean they combine like terms any better, just that when they struggle, the teacher won’t find out about it.

By the way, I’m not saying here that you shouldn’t have exacting standards and expect diligence from your students. You should. You don’t have to jump up and down and say, “This mistake is so valuable” every time you get one. What you are looking to do is build a culture that, by seizing opportunities here and there over time, shows that errors are a normal part of learning and perform their role best when they are out in the open. After a mistake occurs, our message should communicate that we are glad to know about it and, perhaps, that our first assumption is that the misunderstanding is likely to have some cause that is not anybody’s “fault.” It’s easy to assume that confused students weren’t paying attention or don’t value the knowledge, and of course, there are cases when that’s true. However, it’s far more productive to assume that students are confused because the material is complex the first time they see it, or because our explanations were somehow imperfect after all, or just because students are like you and me and sometimes need to go over it one more time.

Culture of Error has four key parts: expecting error, withholding the answer, managing your tell, and praising risk-taking. Get the free ebook and see an example of a culture of error in action.

Image credit: michaeljung/Getty Images


About the Author

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