The Greater Good Science Center published an engaging piece on the benefits of including mistakes as an explicit part of the teaching and learning process. The article makes references to mathematics teaching practices in Japan and Singapore that give students time to fail at a problem before reviewing the correct solution as well as common mistakes.
There is some evidence that the practice may have significant benefits. One study in Singapore shows that this method may enhance the learning process for students, enabling them to better retain and apply the concepts.
Aside from the learning benefits, it’s also important to consider the emotional benefits of welcoming mistakes and failure in the classroom. An October feature in the New York Times noted that record numbers of teenagers in the U.S. are suffering from crippling anxiety in school. The article profiled several teens who were so anxious that they had dropped out.
Fear of failure was the core issue behind the anxiety for the teens profiled in the story. Some of the teens went to therapists who designed practices to expose them to failure, normalizing the experience of making mistakes. These teens were able to re-enter academic life with less of the debilitating anxiety that had taken them out.
Whether we are teachers, counselors, parents or mental health professionals who work with young adults, we can do them a huge favor by normalizing failure, and explicitly teaching about the value of mistakes. In addition to the types of pedagogical methods described in the Greater Good article, we can also teach about mistakes by being honest about our own.
For mindfulness teachers, we can explicitly bring attention to the psychic and physiological processes that take place when we are challenged to perform, and when we fail. For example, students can bring awareness to their thoughts patterns, emotional state, and physiological state before tests, projects and athletic events. Students can learn to recognize the hallmarks of fear, anxiety, and stress and bring compassion to themselves at these moments.
Students can also learn to bring mindfulness to failure – noticing the thoughts, feelings and physiological response when the results of their efforts do not meet their definition of success. In particular, we can encourage students to recognize how shame plays out in the mind and body, and how to work constructively with it. Rather than shutting down, students can examine the core negative beliefs that drive the shame, and learn to see through these beliefs and to bring compassion to themselves in difficult moments.