The fear of making mistakes

Published: December 16, 2014
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The writer is a professional development instructor and O/A-levels mathematics teacher at Karachi Grammar School. She has a master’s in education and international development from the University of London

The writer is a professional development instructor and O/A-levels mathematics teacher at Karachi Grammar School. She has a master’s in education and international development from the University of London

Being in the field of education generally, and being a teacher of mathematics and contributing to teacher development specifically, have been enlightening experiences for me. Over the years, I have noticed that the biggest impediment to learning is the fear that students have of making mistakes. This hinders the development of analytical skills and thinking strategies. The fear of being wrong is so great that students would rather not answer questions at all than answer them incorrectly, to avoid an angry response from the teacher. This fear automatically leads students to develop a fear of trying new things and being creative. Their response to a difficult problem is an instant ‘I cannot do it’ and they readily seek help from the teacher rather than trying different solutions themselves even if they turn out to be wrong. Students, in my view, are becoming, ‘victims of excellence’.

What has led to this state of affairs? Success in school is often defined narrowly in terms of the marks that students achieve in tests. This premise, that ‘results’ are all that matter in education, allows no place for mistakes. There is a need to realise that the learning process is just as important as getting the correct answer.

In this regard, teachers need to help create a congenial and supportive environment in which students do not fear failure and making mistakes is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. This will happen if teachers start guiding students to learn from their mistakes, and encourage them to indulge in cycles of strategies, re-strategising until the required result is obtained. Examples of famous people, whose achievements did not result from their first attempt, should be related and students need to be told that the mistakes that these people made turned out to be the stepping stones towards their success.

A lot of the problems result from an over-emphasis on instant gratification rather than on patience, perseverance and hard work. When questions are asked from students, ‘thinking time’ should be given to them and they should be categorically told that the thinking process is an essential part of any solution they come up with. Students, who are ‘trained’ to always adopt the safe strategy, are quick to give up rather than face negative emotions associated with trying the task. One of the responsibilities of the teacher in such a situation is to help them learn how to persevere when the problem-solving process becomes difficult. Sufficient time must be provided to them to complete their work. They should be encouraged to adopt different strategies for approaching and solving problems. They should also be encouraged to participate in class activities. Students who might feel anxiety in sharing their ideas with the entire class often feel more comfortable sharing in smaller groups.

An interesting concept in this regard is provided by Carol Dweck’s research on “fixed mindsets and growth mindsets”. Students with fixed mindsets believe that they are either good at something like mathematics or football, or they’re not. For those with a fixed mindset, mistakes only serve to highlight failure. Students with growth mindsets believe that some people are better or worse in certain areas, but they can all improve and develop their skills and abilities. These students are much more likely to be able to accept mistakes because they know those are part of learning. It is safe to conclude from this that we all have a much greater ability to develop our potential than we think we do. Leading from this, in our schools, we should be putting emphasis on the process of learning rather than on the results it achieves. This will be a challenge for a system where success is based on results and not the bigger ideas, motives and goals of education. But it can be done. Mistakes should be an indication, not of failure, but of what still needs to be learnt.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th,  2014.

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Reader Comments (2)

  • raider
    Dec 16, 2014 - 9:33AM

    yes ,mistake is blessing in some way, it indulges individuals in brain storming,why some time first mistake(unintentional due to ignorance) carry so big punishment like in mostly blasphemous matters

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  • Aussie
    Dec 16, 2014 - 12:17PM

    A fine article, dealing with the crux of learning issues which we have faced for generations. Ms. Ainee Shehzad Salim, and like-minded persons may wish to compile their ideas and suggestions and seek governmental, NGO or a political party to sponsor the mass distribution of the Urdu version as an aid to new thinking on learning through-out the Country.

    Times are changing rapidly, the ability to learn from a distance especially from the internet is becoming more important. I can imagine the countless phenomenal young minds especially in the rural areas who are forever put off mathematics and the sciences because of the slap and curses of an ill-mannered teacher.

    It would be good to also dispense information through the mass media, through TV plays and the like, so as to bring about a change in the public mind-set. A mistake is essential to learning, as long as it is the outcome of actual effort. Many years ago, negative numbers were considered as unrealistic and till recently imaginary numbers were thought of in a similar vein.

    The availability of parallel paths of learning and parallel paths of assessment will make it possible to complete the learning evolution in Pakistan. Failure at a key examination is often the end of the young one’s dreams. It does not have to be so. We do not all attain the peak of our learning abilities at the same age.

    Finally, it is the availability of gainful employment after education which is the ultimate driver for adoption of new thinking.

    — Aussie: Shahid Saleem Arshad, Sydney, Australia

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