Risk-taking and Mistake-(Monster)-Making
In high quality learning environments, risk-taking and mistake-making go hand in hand. Establishing a learning community that is both safe and challenging represents a fascinating tension. We know that encouraging a risk-embracing culture in any organisation is critical to the effective growth of a productive community of learning. The challenge is to find ways to make it okay to take risks; where mistakes are welcomed as learning opportunities rather than failures. In practice, however, this presents us with complex tensions.
We need to explore those times when taking a risk may simply be recklessness. After all, to become an effective risk-taker, we need to employ sophisticated skills of discernment and analysis of the situation. We need to use our ability to think through the consequences of the potential outcomes but this is a tough call when we may be trying something entirely new and the possible outcomes are, by definition, unknown. That’s where we need to be clear about our intentions and expectations.
Similarly, making mistakes may or may not be the result of risk-taking. A mistake may simply be indicative of carelessness, lack of time or stress, rather than an overt effort to take a risk. For a mistake to be a learning opportunity, we need to be able to communicate what the expected intended outcome was going to be. This is particularly true for us when we find ourselves staring at the disastrous wreckage of our Great Plan. If we don’t know what we want to achieve, it is hard to know how we can learn much from it when it goes catastrophically wrong.
Is there any such thing as a mistake?
One of the first conversations worth having with groups involves interrogating what we actually consider to be:
(a) a risk
(b) a mistake
After all, one person’s risk is another person’s ‘piece of cake’. For one, working independently is a massive risk whereas for another, it is a dream to be able to work alone and develop ideas without having to defer to group consensus. We need to develop a shared understanding of the individual risk-parameters present in any group, whatever the age.
And what exactly do we consider to be a ‘mistake’? It is worth thinking about how many ‘mistakes’ have become ingenious discoveries. Take the humble yet powerful sticky note, as just one example. The result of ‘inventing’ a glue that didn’t stick very well is now at the top of the list of every stationery order in almost every business and school around the world. So how many mistakes can never really be considered to be anything other than a mistake, and, therefore, worthless? You could argue that every time we do something wrong, we actually get closer to doing what is right (or so St Thomas Aquinas would argue with the ‘Via Negativa’ approach to learning)…so is there ever any such thing as a mistake?
There are some other questions worth consideration and that could form the basis of co-constructing a risk-taking culture where it is acceptable to make mistakes in lessons:
1. What is our PERCEPTION of risk?
Creating a continuum line of risk-taking is a helpful way of asking learners to assess what level of risk they are either (a) prepared to take in their learning and/or (b) have taken as part of their learning. Encouraging them to discuss what we actually mean and understand when we talk about taking a risk is integral to agreeing a set of qualities of risk taking behaviours that we would, as a group, either encourage or discourage.
(Painting excerpts from Edvard Munch)
This also works as a handy progress measure as the group can keep a record of the level of risk they are prepared to undertake over a period of lessons and try to increase it OR see if, by developing their levels of confidence, their perception of risk is reduced.
2. What is an ACCEPTABLE mistake?
Discussing examples and scenarios where making a mistake results in such catastrophic fall-out that it cannot, under any circumstances be ‘understood’ and, thereby, forgiven is a valuable aspect of developing a culture of risk-taking. For example, we have all experienced the highly developed, some might say over-developed, sense of justice that young people often hold. When it comes to confronting and commenting on mistakes during a self or peer assessment session, agreeing the expectations and etiquette of what actually constitutes a ‘mistake’ is a crucial part of ensuring purposeful comments and feedback.
3. What are the implications of encouraging an all-embracing mistake-making culture?
Aren’t there some situations where there really is a ‘right’ answer, a correct way of doing things which basically means that the time it takes to make a mistake is wasted time?
Well, perhaps the time-element is the crucial factor here. Perhaps if we respond to a wrong answer’ or a ‘mistake’ by simply stating that it is not right this time, then we can overtly communicate that this particular mistake does not represent the end of the world and doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to get it right or that you are rubbish at this and always will be. Instead, we can reassure that although this time, it’s not right, there’s a chance to learn from it, do it differently and get it right next time. This approach digresses slightly from the effort-focused conversations endorsed by Professor Carol Dweck in that it confronts and uses the mistake itself as the focus for the learning conversation. In this way, the inaccuracy, misconception or gap in knowledge and understanding that has lead to the mistake becomes the learning opportunity we want it to be.
4. Mistake response: What was your INTENTION?
In establishing a culture that embraces mistakes and expects risk, being both specific and overt (you would expect me to say that, I am sure) works well. Being overt about what we, as a group, understand and expect to see in an environment where learning stands proud and tall on the foundations of error, mistakes and misjudgements will enhance the quality of reflective learning conversations.
Perhaps the answer to all of this is to define mistakes as the product of intentional risk-taking i.e. ‘having a go’. This means that mistakes can simply become learnable moments. A bit (very much, actually) like all learning. This is a sort of silver-lining approach to thinking about mistakes. It also needs us to recognise that in the grand scheme of things, there is almost always something we can salvage from the embers of a ‘failed’ endeavour. If only to agree to never do it like that again.
5. MAKE A MISTAKE MONSTER AND FEED IT!
The inspiration for this post came from a conversation I had recently where the concept of creating a ‘Mistake Monster’ or ‘Elephant of Errors’ was being discussed. A colleague had set a challenge to the students to actually design and create a personal mistake monster. During the term, they would ‘feed’ the monster with their mistakes. At the end of the term / unit / topic / lesson, the students can have a critique the mistakes they have made rather than discarding them. They would employ the pre-agreed criteria for what actually constituted a ‘mistake’. From this, there would be discussions and classifications of ‘good mistakes’ ‘helpful mistakes’ and so on, to the point where the process of learning (progress) was truly at the heart of the conversations between students and teachers.
As we discussed the possibilities of this, I started to imagine students and teachers creating their very own actual ‘Mistake Monsters’ and installing a ‘Mēlée of Mistake Monsters’ (for that is, I am sure, the collective noun of Mistake Monsters) as welcomed members of a risk-taking community of quality learning.Inevitably, this made me wonder what my own ‘Mistake Monster’ would:
(a) Need to Know and Understand
(b) Be Able to do
(c) Be Like