Five ways to build a culture of error in your chemistry classroom to help students learn from their mistakes
Students hate making mistakes. Some think the ground will swallow them whole if they do. But mistakes are good. We all make mistakes. They’re a normal part of the learning process. They give us valuable data about student knowledge.
Students often think that they mustn’t mess up, so you have to show them that sometimes it’s OK. In his book Teach like a champion 2.0 (TLAC), Doug Lemov describes a ‘culture of error’ in which you create an environment where students know that it’s alright to get things wrong. Once they realise the importance of mistakes, they’re no longer afraid to make them. In turn, you’ll be able to spend less time looking out for errors, and more time fixing them. Here are the five key ways that I use.
When a student makes a common mistake, I celebrate it: ‘I was hoping someone would say that, thank you! Let’s talk about it.’
1. Challenge negative responses
This is the very first step in building a culture of error in your classroom. If your students are still laughing when someone errs, you’re going to struggle to establish the right culture. We need to challenge students when they react negatively to a mistake, whether someone else’s or their own. How you choose to challenge them will depend on your behaviour management system, but it’s important to make sure your students know laughing is unacceptable, as is beating themselves up over mistakes. That being said, a common error teachers make when building a culture of error is allowing students to get away with not paying attention. If a student gets the questions wrong because they’d tuned you out, it’s still important to remind them of your expectations.
2. Explain your reasoning
Before teaching a new topic, I ask students a series of questions to ascertain if they have the knowledge required to access the lesson – a prerequisite knowledge check. Some of my year 7s tend to cheat on this check, trying to show off what they know. But if they have to look up the answer, they don’t know it well enough. If I see a whole set of correct answers, I assume they have the foundations needed to build on. If they’ve cheated, the foundations I assume are in place might not be, and it will be much harder for them to learn the topic. So when I notice my year 7s cheating, I explain why I need to see their mistakes. They understand this, and now they show me what they know, mistakes included!
Students are often more responsive to feedback from their peers than from us as teachers
3. Celebrate mistakes
There are common mistakes. We can anticipate and pre-empt these, but sometimes I prefer to pick them up later. When a student makes a common mistake, I celebrate it: ‘I was hoping someone would say that, thank you! Let’s talk about it.’ Be careful not to say ‘yes’, or otherwise imply their answer is correct. When using this technique, it’s important that you are very aware of the work your students are doing – you want to catch the mistake as early as possible so students aren’t practising the wrong thing!
4. Show call and pseudo-show-call
Show call is another TLAC technique where student work is put under the visualiser and shared with the class who then, together, offer feedback. Pseudo-show-call is a colleague’s modification of this technique. Instead of taking the students’ work and displaying it directly, the answers are written or typed on the board. The class and teacher then discuss why an answer is wrong. The class can then improve the shared answer or use the information from the discussion to improve their own work. For some reason, students are often more responsive to feedback from their peers than from us as teachers. By being so open with incorrect work, show call and pseudo-show-call help students see that being wrong isn’t the end point; what matters is what you do with your wrong answer.
How we react to our own mistakes is just as important as how our students react to theirs
5. Own your own
Students aren’t the only ones who make mistakes in the classroom. How we react to our own mistakes is just as important as how our students react to theirs. If we don’t own our mistakes, it becomes very ‘do as I say, not as I do’, which never ends particularly well. It’s also important to get other adults in the room on board as well; if you have a teaching assistant, make sure they understand why it’s so important for you to spot student mistakes, and own your own.
Building a culture of error is vital. If you don’t foster such a culture, you will have students who will avoid trying in case they get it wrong, students who would rather cheat and get it right than admit a mistake, and students who are scared of trying new things in case they muck it up. More importantly, you’ll be flying blind because you won’t get good data to inform your teaching. Create a safe space for students to make mistakes – for your own benefit, and theirs.
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