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A pair of glasses with a broken lense

On Being Wrong: Cultivating Inclusion, Humility, and a Growth Mindset

Mon Nov 28, 2022 at 07:30 AM

“Good mistakes unlock learning because they focus our attention on a key step or insight that may have previously been out of focus. For mistakes to be good, a growth mindset is needed… a powerful way to foster a growth mindset in yourself and the people around you is to use language like ‘that was a good mistake.’ By normalizing mistakes as part of learning, we can nudge people away from an either/or mindset.” 

- Dolly Chugh, from The Person You Mean to Be

While it seems obvious that we learn through trial and error, it is important that this trial and error be visible--not necessarily public and not in a highly visible and high stakes situation, but something we see before us as a mistake. Otherwise we suffer the illusion of fluency and competence: when we learn information that counteracts our previous thought, we convince ourselves that we really did know the answer. These illusions remove the impact of real learning, of seeing our growth and the real difference each class session can make in our understanding of the class content.

Many of our students experienced a high stakes learning environment in which high grades are everything and anything resembling failure is unacceptable. To unlearn this assumption that all failure is bad, that all mistakes are a result of our shortcomings, we should seize opportunities to normalize mistakes and being wrong. As Chugh explains, being able to say “that was a good mistake,” to our students and to ourselves, cultivates the growth mindset that is crucial to learning, creativity, and so many measures of capability. If we as the experts in our field, those on top of our game, can regularly tell our students stories about failure, mistakes, and growth, our students will have more to say and learn, and our classes will get a whole lot more exciting.

Prompts on Being Wrong

Dedicate a regular time to acknowledge, surface, and narrate mistakes (weekly, twice a month). By doing this, you create pathways for students to acknowledge, reflect on, and move beyond mistakes that might have otherwise blocked their motivation and concentration.

  1. Share your mistakes on your academic journey. I love faculty conversations where all of us share humble beginnings: bombing an exam, failing a class, switching fields, profound misunderstandings. We should be open to sharing these with students, along with how we grew and succeeded out of those moments. To emphasize with students that writing rarely, if ever, starts in great condition, I shared with my students a draft of my personal statement for graduate school, followed by a supportive, but candid review from my mentor who said he had no idea what I was talking about in the statement. I shared my initial reaction and embarrassment, then the resolve to slowly move toward improvements that led me to a much clearer final version. Doing this as a young, female professor can be risky, which is why showing the growth, skill, and career success that came out of that mistake is also crucial.
  2. Cite historic mistakes made in your field. Our fields are built on mistakes of all kinds, some that were valid at the time based on available data, others that were careless or the results of human error. These stories are not only surprising and engaging, but they also encourage critical thinking.
  3. Acknowledge current and ongoing mistakes in your field. It’s easy to dismiss the mistakes of the past, but we should also grapple with more recent and ongoing mistakes related to course material: frequent ethics violations, injustices, lack of equitable representation, distrust, toxicity. Acknowledge whose voices have been repressed and underrepresented in the discipline’s research and textbooks, followed by what is being done to correct this and how the class can contribute to this effort.
  4. Talking about fixed versus growth mindset. While it may seem like old news in the education realm, students may not have heard of Dweck’s research on the major effects of a fixed mindset versus growth mindset (see also Dweck’s TED Talk). The important message is that anyone can learn a skill, which is important for creating inclusive and successful environments for underrepresented groups (e.g. women internalizing ideas that they are “bad at math”).
  5. Commit to learning something with students throughout the semester. Professors have shared endearing stories of showing students that practice is required for learning any new skill. (I remember a story of a professor practicing shooting free throws throughout the semester and video-recording continual progress.) Pick something you would like to be better at, or let your students brainstorm ideas. This demonstrates the improvement process, but also helps minimize the “curse of expertise” that can create a gap between our teaching and their learning.
  6. Allot time for students to reflect on mistakes they’ve made and how they’d like to change that path. At a couple of points throughout the semester, prompt students to reflect on how they’re doing in the course, where they have made mistakes, and how they plan to grow accordingly. The Progress Report Journal is one example of how this can be done before the midsemester point.
  7. Create opportunities for students to experience mistakes in real time. During a class session, have activities in which students can immediately assess whether they were right or wrong about content related to your course, or answers that or more valid, relevant, or supported in the literature. These should resemble or build toward the type of assessments students will have, but in no-risk or low-risk situations.
  8. Praise a good mistake. I think the exact words Chugh (2017) uses are key: “That was a good mistake.” She goes on to explain the usefulness of this phrase when talking about mistakes made in having difficult conversations around identity or controversial topics. If students make mistakes that are in the right direction or that provide a valuable learning opportunity for the class, clearly state the usefulness of that mistake. This encourages risk-taking and growth beyond arriving at some “right” answer, which doesn’t always exist in our course work.

References and Resources 

Chugh, D. (2018). The person you mean to be: How good people fight bias. New York: HarperCollins. Available at Oakland University’s Kresge Library.

Dweck, C.S., & Bempechat, J. (1983). Children's theories of intelligence: Implications for learning. In S. Paris, G. Olson, and H. Stevenson (Eds.) Learning and motivation in children. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dweck, C. S.; Chiu, C. Y.; Hong, Y. Y. (1995). Implicit theories: Elaboration and extension of the model. Psychological Inquiry, 6(4): 322–333. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0604_12.

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About the Author

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Image adapted from Rob Pym, Creative Commons Photos. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

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