This post originally appeared on the blog Esther Brunat.
When did being wrong become a bad thing?
You’re up in the front of the class laying down your best (insert subject topic here) teaching. You ask a higher order thinking question, the kind from the top of the pyramid that you learned about in college, and all of a sudden it’s so quiet you can hear yourself breathe. Every student in the class is avoiding direct eye contact. Should they lock eyes with you, they are SURE to get called. What is this phenomenon? It’s a bunch of kids afraid of being wrong. We bind wrongness with identity. I am wrong. You are wrong. Instead what if we try saying things like, “I have the wrong answer.” “Your answer is incorrect.” We associate being wrong with their self-esteem and it’s got to stop.
Kids have these secret thoughts that say things like: If I am wrong, my teacher will be upset. If I am wrong, I will be punished. If I am wrong, there is no way to fix it.
Who put those thoughts there? We did.
We reward getting right answers in one shot. Often one shot thinkers are the ones who end up failing freshman year of college because all their lives they’ve been rewarded for natural ability. They never learn to work hard or try at all. We Pavlovian-ly ( I know that’s not a word) train them into this behavior. If we are honest, quite a bit of us are one shot thinkers. That’s why we are so good at this school thing, am I right? No one says, “I am a really bad student so I will become a teacher.” It’s more like, “I’m so good at this school thing, I think I’ll do it for the rest of my life.” Subsequently we indoctrinate our students to be our version of the model student. “Think as well as I do. Do your work as neatly as I do. Learn the same way I do. Never be wrong, always be right.”
We’ve all heard the quote… you know the one from Thomas Edison about how many times he failed before he created the light bulb. He casually drops that line explaining how he didn’t fail; he just found a bajillion ways not to make a light bulb. Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s important that students get wrong answers. It’s important that they know that an incorrect answer can be fixed. Having a wrong answer is not a dead end; a wrong answer is a speed bump on the path to the right one. Here’s another quote for you, said by Franklin Roosevelt, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” If this is true, we must accustom our classrooms to these rough seas.
Now that we see the issue, how do we fix it?
Let’s start with using ourselves as guinea pigs. Change has to start somewhere. Let’s start with the teacher. We want to identify some behaviors that might be sending the wrong signals.
Below you will find some reflective questions. These questions are not meant to be hostile, like the default ringtone on an iPhone alarm, but rather warm and inviting, like the “Hot Now” sign at a Krispy Kreme drive-thru. Here goes:
Questions for Reflection
1. Is being wrong acceptable in your classroom?
2. What is your tone of voice when a student gives the wrong answer? Is it sassy with an undertone of gr? Or is it understanding with a hint of curiosity?
3. Do you ever try and make sense of their thought processes? Or do you immediately say BYE FELECIA and move on.
4. Do you compliment hard work and grit or do you only reward one shot thinkers who get it right on the first try?
5. Is being wrong seen as an opportunity to grow or are they treated like the guy from the TLC’s “No Scrubs” music video?
6. When you hear a wrong answer, is your reaction immediately coupled with a stank face?
7. When your students give an incorrect answer, do they ever ask why it was wrong? Do they openly explain to you how they derived their answer so they can see the errors of their logic? Or do they give up and stop trying?
You need to know that I’m preaching to myself here. This “wrong thing” is a work in progress. And the grace we foster in the classroom must first be extended to ourselves. Are you okay with being wrong? Identify some of the behaviors that might be sending the wrong signals and work towards making them better. Growth mindset starts with you.
How are you going to improve your appreciation for the thinking process this week in the classroom?
Esther Brunat is a 7th year teacher in sunny South Florida. She teaches math to high schoolers and enjoys all the sassy and insane things they have to say every day. You can find her on Instagram (instagram.com/estherbrunat) telling daily classroom stories about how to find the funny, feel good, and keep it cool.