Modeling Mistakes and Creating Trust in the Classroom

All learning, for both students and teachers, involves frustration and mistakes along the way.

Take language learning, for example. As a student, I had the mortifying experience of repeating to a Spanish-speaking friend that I was “un poquito embarazada” about my mediocre language abilities. Relying on English/Spanish cognates, I tried to convey that I was “a little embarrassed” about my Spanish. Rather, I said that I was “a little bit pregnant.”

As a former Spanish teacher, I often shared this excruciating story with students. Why? I needed them to know I made mistakes while learning — really big ones — and lived to tell about it. Did I learn the correct way to express my embarrassment? Absolutely. Did new mistakes help me continue to improve? Of course.

Teaching is tricky. Teachers are expected to model the behaviors and dispositions of effective learning, and at the same time, need to show up as masters of the content they teach. This requirement makes the words “I don’t know” painful to utter. In a world of high-stakes testing that offers students four options in a multiple-choice format, there’s little room for error. Yet, we know that real-world problems rarely, if ever, present themselves as four choices with only one correct answer.

If we want to create resilient, capable, problem-solving students, we need to allow them to make mistakes that encourage them to learn and grow. Students learn best when their affective filter is low. When mistake-making is perceived as bad, it is detrimental to learning.

The same holds for teachers.

We must allow teachers to model learning through trial and error.

When we create professional learning experiences that reward teacher risk-taking, we’re creating an environment of trust, which means encouraging teachers to continually re-new their practice through experimentation, failure and iteration.

This post is part of a blog series titled “Professional Development: Learning Through Collaboration” produced in partnership with Participate (@participate). Join the conversation on Twitter using #collaborativePD. For more:

Meriwynn Mansori is the Manager of Curriculum at Participate. Follow her on Twitter: @Meriwynn.