3 ways to make sense of ‘teaching mistakes’.

Today, I was observed by teachers in the first year of their training. The lesson they observed was a ‘research’ based lesson on the planets as part of our Space topic. I ambitiously planned for this to be a two step process: my pupils were to come up with their own questions about their planet of choice and then research the answers to these questions using internet sources and books that I had carefully selected. On paper the plan looked great.

The starter task worked well.

The explanation of the learning objective was sound.

My questioning and assessment for their understanding of key terms and phrases for the lesson was spot on.

The explanation of the first task (writing their own questions about their planet of choice) went well too.

The key issue began in the lesson when pupils started their first task: writing their own question(s) about the planets. This was way too difficult for my fledgling pupil researchers; I had not explained or modelled the process for doing this with any sort of precision.

Confusion ensued – I had to make a decision about what course we would take for the rest of the lesson: ‘Do I stop now and go back to square one? Do I change course and give them the questions, or at least, some ideas for what they need to find out?’

Internally, I panicked just a tiny bit. Not because of the student teachers, but because of my lack of foresight that my pupils might struggle with this task. As I write, I realise how difficult the task I asked them to do was without support or modelling. I’d made my decision though: plough on, with a bit more explanation and a few examples. In essence ‘stick to the lesson plan’.

I didn’t get the outcomes I wanted from the lesson: not every child had a rich understanding of the planets they had chosen and it wasn’t their fault – it was mine. I didn’t plan the lesson right and I didn’t help them to get there in the right way. I think now, in the comfort of hindsight, that this was my mistake: I was too rigid to my plan and should have given more scaffolding and support for that first task, even if we wouldn’t have achieved the entire learning objective for that day.

Why am I writing this? Why here on this blog? In short, it is because I believe it really matters what teachers do with these sorts of mistakes. I want to put down my own understanding of ‘teaching mistakes’ and three reflection points that have helped me learn from them more effectively. I hope they might help you too.

I’ll explain further, beginning with a quote from George Bernard Shaw that guides my thinking on this issue:

“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.”

 Someone shared this quote with me in my first year of teaching. To be honest, I told myself that this is the sort of thing they tell you when you first enter the profession, expecting you to make all your ‘mistakes’ in your first year, meaning a successful, perfect teacher is left at the end of it. Today, I realised this is not true. A year or so in, I still find myself having a tendency to stretch my pupils too far and expect a little bit more of them than I should. Most of the time, it works out okay; sometimes, like this afternoon, it goes way over their heads.

Making sense of teaching mistakes: 3 reflection strategies.

What do I mean by a ‘teaching mistake’? I take this simply to mean an error in teaching decisions, be it in planning, delivery, feedback or any other area of teaching practice that may cause pupils to not make the progress they are capable of. Note here, a class a teaching mistake is something that the teacher has caused. In my view, if the teacher (in this instance, me) hadn’t have made that ‘mistake’ the learners may have learned more within that period of time. (I’m sure there will be conceptual holes in this definition but I think it will suffice for this post.)

Making mistakes is essential for successful teaching: without making them, there is nothing to learn from. With nothing to learn from, there is no way we can improve. What these statements assume is that teachers will take risks: they will push pupils further, challenge them deeper, enable them to go on beyond where they might have gone in an innovative way. I definitely took a risk today and it didn’t pay off. More than this, teaching mistakes are often grounded in an area of our practice where we ‘don’t know what we don’t know’, therefore the mistake from the risk taken happens in the classroom. Over time, it is hoped this gap in our practice becomes smaller and smaller with good reflective strategies.

With these things in mind, when we take risks and they don’t ‘pay off’ (in learning terms), how can we systematically reflect and move forward in our teaching practice? These are some hard learned, quick and easy thinking strategies that I still could do with following:

1. Don’t take ‘teaching mistakes’ personally – it’s part of the teaching journey.

By taking a lesson that didn’t go well personally and letting your emotions run away with themselves, the only person it hurts is yourself. This is easier said than done but what I’ve come to realise is that when I take bad lessons personally, I lose confidence in my teaching ability. This is catastrophic, as Alex Quigley discusses in his awesome book. Without having confidence in yourself as a teacher, your pupils won’t have confidence in you. With this in mind, teaching becomes very difficult and the last thing you want is to head into a self-defeating spiral. All this said, the aim is not to be confident in a traditional sense of the word (see Alex’s blog post here for more details on where my thinking has come from on this).

2. Stick to the facts of the ‘teaching mistake’ and unpick it (or them) carefully.

Come away from the lesson, make yourself a coffee and think carefully. What was it that actually went wrong? I have found that often it wasn’t quite as much as I initially thought. In my case, it was the first task that wasn’t suited particularly well to my pupils. Once you figure this out, hone in on it, ask yourself hard questions: why didn’t it work? Who did it not work for? Did some pupils not understand? What sort of evidence do you have that can help you unpack this? Maybe, once you’ve done this, write it out and be crystal clear about what and why it didn’t work. (This website and this website have helped me ask myself great questions.

3. Find a solution…fast.

By being crystal clear about what went wrong, you are then able to think through carefully how you will solve that problem next time it arises or how you will plan that particular aspect of your teaching in a better way. Maybe share your problems and solutions with a more experienced colleague and check you’re on the right lines with your solution to ensure you ‘don’t make the same mistake twice’ (just like this teacher did as explained in this brilliant article that really resonates with me).

This is really key in teaching: by repeating the mistake twice, in my view, you are not only hindering your development but affecting your pupils learning twice with ineffective teaching. One mistake happens, we’re all human. To do the same ineffective thing twice in the classroom isn’t helping anyone, especially not you.

Have I missed anything here, or even made a ‘mistake’ in my reasoning? I’d love to hear from you.


6 thoughts on “3 ways to make sense of ‘teaching mistakes’.”

    1. Thanks Alex for your comments and for your writing. I’ve just started out but enjoying the process.
      Turns out we sat next to each other recently on a training course in Bradford – I only realised after I left! IPEEL?


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