Historically, psychologists and educators believed errorless learning to be the most effective route to obtaining knowledge and skills. The assumption is that errors committed during learning would remain in memory and hinder any subsequent learning (Guthrie 1952). Research demonstrates that occasionally errors committed on initial tests may reappear on later tests (Roediger and Marsh 2005; Marsh, Roediger and Bjork 2007). In addition, errorless learning may be the best approach to take for people with memory impairments (Clare and Jones 2008; Baddeley and Wilson 1994).
Despite evidence that errors can have a negative effect on learning, there is also a considerable amount of evidence that demonstrates that this concern is misplaced, and that learning can in fact be improved if conditions are arranged so that children make errors. In order to facilitate learning, children should be challenged with tasks that require skills and knowledge just beyond their current level of ability (Vygotsky 1978). When attempting challenging tasks, errors are a common by-product, however these errors can provide powerful learning opportunities (VanLehn 1988).
Metcalfe (2017) provides evidence that children can benefit from making mistakes, developing strategies to correct them, as opposed to avoiding them. Drawing on scientific research, Metcalfe concluded that “errors enhance later memory for and generation of the correct responses, facilitate active learning, stimulate the learner to direct attention appropriately, and inform the teacher of where to focus teaching” (2017: 484). Kornell, Hays and Bjork (2009) demonstrated that tests can potentiate subsequent learning even when the correct answer is difficult or impossible to generate. Further research by Kornell, Hays and Bjork (2013) demonstrated that incorrect responses do not indelibly stain students’ memories. Instead with well-timed feedback, the learning from making errors can in fact provide the opportunity for more powerful learning. This study by Hays, Kornell and Bjork, revealed that memory improves if people are given a test they will inevitably fail. Furthermore, Izawa (1970) determined that multiple unsuccessful tests before receiving feedback could enhance the retention of that feedback. Essentially, trying and failing to achieve the correct answer is beneficial to learning.
Kapur and Bielaczyc (2012) identified the value of ‘productive failure’ in learning. During this study, students were separated into a “direct instruction” group and a “productive failure” group. In the “direct instruction” group, students learned to solve complex math problems with assistance from the teacher. In the “productive failure” group, students were encouraged to use a trial and error approach, struggling and failing until the teacher stepped in to support them in reviewing their failed attempts and developing the correct solution. As a result, the “productive failure” group outscored the “direct instruction” group on both simpler and more complex problems during a final test. In addition, the groups who demonstrated numerous approaches to solving problems were also more successful than those who did not. Further research on productive failure has highlighted the importance of delaying instruction in order to enable reflection on incorrect solutions by students (Westermann and Rummel 2012). Research carried out by Westermann and Rummel (2012) found that metacognitive support during student collaboration focused on complicated learning content and discussions of their wrong solutions led to improved learning outcomes. Additionally, curiosity in finding out the correct answer after committing an error can result in improved retention of knowledge (Berlyne and Normore 1972) and reaching impasses and clarifying errors had more of an effect on the learning achieved than when a teacher models the correct answer (VanLehn et al 2003).
Part of this enquiry will involve the implementation of a series of lessons that will encourage the children to use a trial and error approach with minimal input and guidance. The research and studies discussed show that this is an effective way to teach children to embrace mistakes and develop their understanding of the key role they play in their learning and progression. By providing children with the opportunity to make a mistake, in a safe environment, they can develop their understanding that taking risks and potentially failing are often the essential moves necessary to bring clarity, understanding, and change. Through making a mistake they are led to question themselves as to why the answer was wrong, placing themselves in a position to develop insight and ultimately succeed. However, this approach can only be successful if the children have the emotional resilience to respond to mistakes adaptively and flexibly. A host of different emotional and motivational states arise when a child is faced with making a mistake, which can either impede or facilitate learning engagement (Tullis, Steuer and Dresel 2016). This enquiry will involve the children developing a growth mindset through developing their understanding that mistakes should be embraced as a crucial part of their progression and learning.
The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and centres on the distinction between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets (Dweck and Leggett 1988). The type of mindset individuals adopt can have profound implications for how they conceive their learning and personal characteristics (Dweck 2006; Dweck, Chiu and Hong 1995). Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities and talents are fixed and remain unchanging throughout their life. Conversely, individuals with a growth mindset believe that their abilities are malleable and can be improved through effort and learning. Individuals with fixed mindsets believe that intelligence is dependent on innate ability rather than effort, viewing failure as evidence of their own unchanging lack of ability and consequently disengage from tasks when they make a mistake or face difficulty, whereas students with a growth mindset tend to understand that intelligence and academic skills are changeable and that success relies on the amount of effort used (Dweck, 2006; Robin and Pals 2002).
Growth-minded individuals view failures as potential chances for instructive interpretation and are therefore more likely to learn from their mistakes (Dweck 2006). How students perceive intelligence can significantly impact the way they approach their learning, particularly when it comes to coping with adversity. This is of critical importance because the greatest opportunities for learning and progression customarily involve some degree of challenge and failure (Kaufman and Beghetto 2013). Dweck (1986) states that motivation has a huge factor within growth mindset and by taking more responsibility in their learning, children can become motivated and think positively. Further research by Dweck (2007) has demonstrated that growth mindset can be taught to individuals through intentionally praising a child’s effort, process and perseverance instead of ascribing learning achievement to innate qualities and talents. Through using process praise it is possible to encourage children to persist despite failure by encouraging them to think about learning and the process of learning in an alternative way, helping them to cultivate a growth mindset which can lead to increased motivation and continued learning and growth.
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