Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Make Mistakes. Lots

This Wired article explores the neuroscience of mistakes, and why some people learn more from them. It starts with a great quote from master physicist Niels Bohr:

An expert is “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

This is how he or she became the expert. As Zen master Shunryu Sukuzi said, "Zen is one continuous mistake."

I suppose this means teachers must experiment with many approaches and report constant failures. But there are also implications for students. The article discusses studies that have tracked the efficacy of two different types of praise: 1) the "you-are-so-smart" kind, and 2) the "you-worked-really-hard variety. (Those are not official clinical terms.)

Long story short: Kids who receive "smart" praise are less likely to take on harder tasks, less likely to benefit from mistakes, and more likely to get discouraged. Essentially, they are protecting their self-image as the "smart kid" and are unwilling to expose themselves to situations that threaten their identity. Students who are praised for their hard work are more willing to take on new tasks and challenge themselves.

We've tried this at home with our oldest child and her writing practice (she's 4.5, learning to write her letters and a few words, etc) and it seems to work. We praise her effort, her focus, concentration, etc. and try to avoid saying "you're so smart" after she completes a task. This way, she still gets praise and feedback but it's directed at the work itself.

This is impossible when it comes to her looks. I must say, "You're so cute!" instead of "You worked very hard to maintain your appearance!"


  1. Yes. I think that is so true that children labeled "gifted" often stop trying things they are not naturally good at. My husband is an elementary teacher and has seen this countless times.

    My grandmother was a kindergarten teacher forever and she tried her best to steer away from physical beauty/clothing comments. If a student would ask her if she liked his new shoes, my grandma would ask, "Do you like your shoes?"
    I try to follow this example, but since I am a mom of two boys I am always hyper aware of how darling little girls are in dresses and pig tails.
    I'm sure everyone has seen this by now, but this movie looks amazing. (I guess I can't link from here.)
    I don't know how I turned this comment into a gender conversation. It has been on my mind.

  2. That would be a great film to show students. Frightening and enlightening.