Teaching Students to Learn From and Acknowledge Mistakes

Three young boys reading a book in a classroom.

Photo courtesy of US Department of Education at Flickr Creative Commons.

Mistakes happen, but learning from them is an essential skill that many students aren’t being taught to use. As children begin to transition into formal schooling, usually around the age of seven, they general come in with one of two mindsets: growth or fixed.

A growth mindset assumes that people can get smarter with hard work, and these students tend to pay attention to and learn from their mistakes. A fixed mindset assumes that intelligence is static, and these students tend to ignore their mistakes because they don’t want to think about how they failed.

According to a new study from Michigan State University, this is measurable in brain activity. 123 children, split into groups based on the mindsets they had about learning, performed a computerized test.

Growth mindset children paid more attention after they realized they made a mistake, and then “bounced back” more than fixed mindset children. Fixed mindset children could learn from their mistakes, but only if they paid close attention to them, something they were less inclined to do in the first place.

The research implies that even fixed mindset children can learn from their mistakes, as long as they acknowledge and pay attention to them. These mindsets aren’t permanent but instead are—and can be—taught.

By addressing mistakes when they happen, we can help students to better understand the problems they face and find ways to overcome them and grow as individuals. By glossing over mistakes though, we’re doing students a disservice, and the earlier we ingrain such behavior, the harder it will be to change over time.

Teaching students that they can, should, and indeed must learn from their mistakes is an obligation that all teachers and parents share. To do otherwise, even with the best of intentions, is a disservice to not only the student, but to society as a whole.


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