I slammed my foot and, to my surprise, picked up speed. The lawn mower headed straight for the newly planted apple tree in our backyard. The sound of mower blades slicing through a thin tree trunk caught my father’s attention. He strode across the lawn, and I prepared to be banished from the riding lawn mower. But my father laughed.
“Do you know what you did?” I nodded and explained I had stepped on the clutch rather than the brake, freeing the mower to roll downhill and over the sapling. “Okay,” he said, “where’s the brake?” I showed him which was the brake and which was the clutch. Chuckling, he explained, “You’ve got it. Don’t worry about the tree. It was dead anyway. Now we won’t have to look at it. Keep going.”
Mistakes, claims Jonah Lehrer, “should be cultivated and carefully investigated.” To the brain, “Disappointment is educational.”1
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake: “Self-criticism is the secret to self-improvement.”2
Since we learn, in part, by attending to our errors, what kind of feedback should we, as teachers, give to our students?
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck contrasted the results of two different types of feedback. One group of students were praised for their intelligence: “You are smart at this.” A second group of students was praised for their efforts: “You worked hard and look at the results.”
The findings? Students praised for their intelligence became easily discouraged when they encountered difficult tasks and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. These students were only content when they could compare their results with students who preformed worse on tasks or tests. In contrast, students praised for their efforts sought challenge, welcomed mistakes, and increased achievement an average of 30% between pre- and post-testing. Lehrer explains:
The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the “smart” compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.3
Dweck’s findings mirrors those of Dr. Jennifer Mangels: individuals who believe intelligence is a fixed entity (i.e., you get the intelligence you’re born with) focus on performance and respond to negative feedback (i.e., the identification of an error) by withdrawing and extending little effort. In contrast, individuals who believe intelligence is malleable (i.e., smart is something you become not something you possess) respond to negative feedback with a mastery-orientation, seeking means of correction and learning. Such learners are resilient, responding to set-backs with renewed energy directed toward learning.4
How can we direct student response to feedback so that the mastery-orientation overcomes the performance-orientation? How can we guide student disappointment to careful investigation of mistakes?
Dr. Robert Brooks (2007) suggests couching feedback in “we” statements. For example, rather than telling a student that a response is incorrect and to “try harder,” Brooks suggests, in one-on-one conversation, saying, “This strategy you’re using doesn’t seem to be working. Let’s figure out why and how we can change the strategy so that you are successful.” Such a response invites a careful investigation of the mistake and makes the interaction a problem-solving experience. A classroom environment that welcomes error as a gateway to learning contributes to better feedback responses.5
My dad responded in a way that kept me moving forward in my learning and mowing the lawn successfully for several years. Disappointment led to reflection and investigation, correction, and renewed interest in getting it right. Guess I learned more than where to find the brake that day.
- Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 51, 48.
- Ibid., 51.
- Ibid., 53-54.
- Brooks, R., Mindsets for School Success: Effective Educators and Resilient, Motivated Learners. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
- Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).