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How can I help students be braver about getting things wrong?

In a recent INSET session for The Glasgow Academy, I was explaining what prevents the learning brains in a secondary school classroom from being the perfect processors of information and ideas and skills they might otherwise be. What hinders optimal learning and what can we do about it? One of the factors I talked about was resilience, particularly resilience to failure. Because fear of failure and the emotions attached to that are one of the barriers to learning.

No one likes to fail. But, if we are aiming high enough and often enough, we will sometimes fail. The only person who never fails is the one who never attempts something difficult enough. Since we all prefer to succeed and if at least occasional failure is a given for someone who is aiming high enough, how do we give students the courage to try something difficult, something they might fail at first? And how do we help them get through those initial failures and eventually create their own success?

One teacher asked a specific question on this. She was a computer science teacher and she made the point that coding involved trying things and seeing what works and, when it doesn’t, trying something else until you find the one that works. It’s a binary right or wrong result. And she said that so often students didn’t even want to do coding or try to work something out because they couldn’t deal with the initial “failure”.

It was an interesting question because at first I thought she was going to say something different. I thought she was going to offer coding as a perfect context for daring failure because a coding error is an impersonal judgement. It’s not a teacher saying the answer’s wrong, but the code itself, no room for bias, a simple battle between coder and code. But she was saying that the binary nature itself was preventing engagement. So I said I needed time to think of a response. And here I am.

Here are my suggestions

(I think there are features that apply to all subjects.)

Frame it as a game or puzzle

When you play a computer game or do a puzzle, the results are similarly impersonal and binary. It’s you against the machine or the game or whatever. Also, crucially, you would never want to do a puzzle or game that was too easy. Think about it – so boring! So unengaging! Is there a way you can frame the coding task – or any other problem-solving task in any subject – as a game or puzzle? Something that is supposed to be difficult, difficult but doable. “The correct answer is out there but how determined are you to find it? What will you feel like when you do?”

With actual games and puzzles, the prize for success is pride, fun, maybe a sticker or a virtual reward. Can this be built into the equivalent work task, too? Make it seem like a fun challenge, one that you’re not meant to crack quickly.

Bring the teacher into the challenge

The head of senior school, who was the person who had invited me, made the point that the most successful lessons were often the ones where the teacher entered into the challenge and made it feel like communal learning. “What if we tried…?” “What would happen if we did…?” “When I first looked at this, I thought…but then…” Show that a teacher is not someone who happens to be able to do this stuff but someone who has been and still is learning and who is just further along that path towards mastery.

Harness risk-taking behaviour – “Do you dare…?”

Not everyone is a big risk-taker but teenagers are the biggest risk-taking group and often the risks they take are the ones we wish they wouldn’t. (In other talks, I explain why!) But what if we tried to harness that desire to take risks and framed the risks we DO want them to take in a way that makes them desirable. “Are you brave enough to try this, even though you won’t get it right at first?” “Are you determined enough?” “How long are you prepared to give to this task?” “How great will you feel when you succeed, especially if you’ve struggled or failed first?”

Even those who aren’t naturally risk-takers in other areas of life can be encouraged to “dare” when it’s a learning task. Often those non-risk-takers don’t take risks because, very sensibly, they don’t want to get into trouble, but this isn’t about getting into trouble: learning is about trying, trying, trying and eventually succeeding.

Don’t say it’s easy

It’s tempting to tell students that something is easy. “It’s really simple – let me show you.” This might seem like a reassuring thing to say but it’s dangerous: if they don’t succeed straightaway, they think they’re stupid. Or they feel undermined that they had to be shown. “This is tricky but I know you will get there,” is far better psychology.

How schools can help prevent helicopter parentingTeach growth mindset

We can’t do anything until we try and it’s only the trying and practising that make us get better at anything. Each time we perform an action, mental or physical, we build or strengthen neural pathways, making it easier the next time. Helps students visualise this physically: every improvement represents actual new or stronger neural connections. Literally, not metaphorically.

Failure as the step to success

When we fail we can learn from it. “What went wrong? What mistake did I make? What does it teach me?” Someone who gets something wrong is less likely to get it wrong again than someone who by chance got it right the first time. Teach this; live it; practise it. Yes, practise failure!

Take a break

When you’ve been struggling with a challenge, coding or otherwise, take a short break and do something different before coming back to it later. In that gap, you could do something relaxing and using little concentration, such as going for a walk or run, or you could just switch to a different sort of task. Either way, you’ll return refreshed and ready for another shot.

You can do it in your sleep

Teach students how sleep consolidates learning. When we spend time puzzling or struggling over something during the day, our sleeping brain then revisits those actions and strengthens the pathways. This means that if you’re finding something very difficult one day and you’re brave enough to try again the next day, you stand a better chance of cracking it. But if you don’t have the courage to keep trying, you’ll never discover what your brilliant brain has been doing for you! Utter magic.

(The Awesome Power of Sleep teaches you and young people all you need.)

What went badly today?

It’s common to do a strongly evidenced exercise called “what went well?” where you write down or talk about three things that went well for you that day. It boosts positivity and self-esteem. But what if instead you had to say three things you got WRONG today?! And if you can’t think of any then – oh dear – you just weren’t aiming high enough… Obviously do this cautiously, after carefully framing why you’re doing it and emphasising that this is because failure IS a step to success and ambitious people have to risk making mistakes. Look at what happens if you approach this right:

“I struggled to understand some new work in maths” – but you’ve acknowledged that and you could ask for help or you could keep trying tomorrow

“I got an answer wrong twice” – but you were brave enough to take that risk and have a go

“I only got five spellings right out of ten” – but you got five right and you can write the ones you got wrong down on flashcards and spend a few extra minutes this evening practising them. Then you’ll do better next time.

You kept on trying!

Praise grit and determination, not talent. Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset teaches us the importance of this. Saying, “Well done – you worked really hard” has a better effect on determination, confidence and self-esteem than saying “Well done – you’re so good at that.” The more schools and parents can value and recognise effort and determination the better for everyone.

Any other ideas from the expert teachers out there?


Meanwhile, you might be interested in my video on Boosting Teenage Resilience – there’s a licence for individuals and families here and one for schools here. Huge value!

Recent feedback: “A colleague of mine caught me at the gates this morning to tell me she felt your session on Tuesday was the best of her long teaching career.”

2 Responses

  1. Hi Nicola,

    Thanks for your response to my question. It is reassuring to see that your advice tallies up with my approach in the classroom. I encourage students to see coding tasks as a puzzle to solve and remind them that even the best coders don’t get code correct first time – that’s not the nature of the beast. I set out my rules for doing things right, which is:

    – don’t be afraid to experiment; trial and error is a legitimate tactic when problem solving!

    – see errors as feedback or clues as to what to do next, not failure

    – if you’re code isn’t working first time, you’re still doing things right!

    – if you copy your neighbour’s code, you aren’t going to improve your ability to solve future problems (I’d rather see you take much longer to complete it and solve it yourself than you getting through lots of tasks)

    – be at peace with that uncomfortable feeling of not getting it right first time, as not getting the code to work immediately is an expected part of the process and you’ll start every problem in that way.

    However, in a highly academic environment and especially for students who struggle to get things right (quickly or at all) on a subject to subject basis, it can be hard to ask them to accept an environment where not getting the code to work immediately is an important part of the process. They may just see it as continued failure rather than an important part of the process. And on the flip side, students who are very, very good at things may be feeling truly challenged for the first time and that can feel alien and off putting.

    My final advice to students is always that problem-solving skills are not a fixed thing and your problem-solving ability can improve with time and experience. Even if you have no plans to go into Computing science in the future, coding, and particularly computational thinking, is a transferable skill.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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