A Mēlée of Mistake Monsters

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.

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 12.51.46

(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

Mistake Monster

Interested in MARGINAL LEARNING GAINS for Teaching and Learning?

Check our the dedicated blog for Marginal Learning Gains for Pedagogy..see tab above or copy this address into your browser:

www.marginallearninggains.com

…and previous posts on this blog

..and the Learning Goggles page has a downloadable PDF covering the underpinning thinking, beginnings and first FIVE Marginal Learning Gains posts.

Ensuring Impact: The Aggregation of Marginal Learning Gains

So, I am now well into a reflection-development phase of the Marginal Learning Gains work. This has to centre around, as with all educational endeavours, “What impact will the Marginal Learning Gains approach have on the quality of teaching and learning and how will I know?”. It is early days, I know, but I am a front-end evaluation sort of thinker and I like to be clear about the intended impact and outcomes from the outset. I am always looking to refine and learn and to do that, I have been asking a few questions of MLG. My own experiences with MLG mean that I have been part of a launch of MLG and I am privileged enough to have been made aware from feedback to this blog, emails, ‘actual’ (!) conversations and through Twitter that many, many people are also now well underway in developing Marginal Learning Gains as a way to reflect and develop their own practice with colleagues and staff.

This post is an acknowledgement to the amazing amount of MLG interest, positive feedback, ideas and fantastic sharing of thinking over the past few weeks about the implementation Marginal Learning Gains (MLG). People have been sharing how they are already using MLG to develop quality learning opportunities in individual practice, within teams and across a school.

Although it is tempting at this point to simply say, “Just try it and see” or, “Take a look at what people are saying in their blogs and tweets about how they’re using MLG and the impact that is having” that’s not enough for the evidence-based researcher in me.

Marginal Learning Gains: The missing verb

When it comes to impact, there is one word missing from my blog posts, our tweets, the marginal gains hashtag on Twitter and even the Marginal Learning Gains website itself that is most likely to provide an answer to how we will see and know there is impact. Although described in the original Dave Brailsford documentary and in his interview here, the one word missing from MLG is the verb, “AGGREGATION“.

For it is in what we DO with the many small Learning Gains we identify, analyse and develop that will lay the foundations for sustained improvement. This will also avoid the inherent danger that some people have rightly noted and commented in our discussions of recommending Marginal Learning Gains as a way to ‘just find some (possibly random) little things to improve’ which may result in pressurising us into implementing a frenetic series of disconnected teaching activities that will only serve to confuse, disrupt and overwhelm. Which is the exact opposite of what MLG is all about. It is designed to give clarity to what we want to develop and improve so that we can think, reflect and discuss what great learning needs to look, sound and feel like for our learners. Have a look at the Ofsted survey on the Learning Goggles section of this blog, placed at Number 4: ‘Some myths about teaching and learning’. This has a description of what might constitute ‘over-teaching’ on pages 12-15 of the Ofsted Survey and illustrates this point about ‘overwhelm’ with teaching strategies.

Criteria: what is a Marginal Learning Gain?

A Marginal Learning Gain is one that can be identified as one small constituent part and incorporated into the whole of a teacher’s practice and used to enhance the daily learning experiences of learners. Ultimately, if there is to be an authentic sense of AGENCY and AUTONOMY in this process, the MLG is entirely up to you. It is for you to reflect on your own practice so that you can select what to focus on as what you believe will make the greatest difference. Drawing on your own wealth of expertise and the advice and observations of others around you is probably the best way to select your first few Marginal Learning Gains.

Here are three possible sources of evidence you may choose to use to refine your definition of your own Marginal Learning Gains and make an informed selection:

1. SELF AWARENESS: The here & now: What and where are the missed opportunities that we frequently observe in our own and each others’ lessons, see in written work or notice during learning walks? What are the small adaptions we could make that would avoid the reflection, ‘…if only…’ in response to how learning is delivered and organised. Where we know we could have provided students with opportunities to think more deeply, make connections across and between topics, discuss with confidence, synthesise their prior and present learning and apply their expertise to new situations?

2. EXTERNAL RESEARCH: The known & reported: What does research say really makes a difference to the quality of learning outcomes? Which of the most powerful teaching techniques or approaches are worth really making a part of our standard practice?

3. JUDGEMENTS: The accountability framework: What does Ofsted say aids (a) the flow of learning and (b) the quality of progress over time of every student? How do we avoid trying to do everything listed be discerning about the few things we can identify in our own context, analyse these and develop them accordingly?

There is an inherent danger in taking an ‘only-do’ approach to MLG in that although it may well lead to identifying some (possible very small) aspects of teaching that, if given attention, can be analysed and then developed, this may not be something that, when aggregated, makes s direct contribution to the ‘whole’. There is one level of impact in reflecting in this way, for sure. The trick is, as is always the case, to consider how to make this learning gain an ACTUAL GAIN and with this, ensure that it is sustainable and can be aggregated (incorporated into the whole so that it has impact). The key to the MLG approach is to ensure that every learning gain made can be embedded and sustained as part of everyday practice, ensuring that this will not be one of those ‘missed opportunities’ at a later date.

So here goes…the Marginal Learning Gains approach with a methodology to accompany it. One that can be used time and time again so that gains can indeed be aggregated. As Dave Brailsford says, it is only when you put the marginal gains together and embed them as part of your standard practice, that you will start to see the TOTAL impact. In this case, on the quality of teaching and learning.

So this is my first attempt (of several, I am sure) to explain just how integral and manageable ‘MICRO‘ action research is as an integral part of the Marginal Learning Gains approach. It is an approach I have used for years and as part of the MLG process, I can only see how will benefit anybody who wants to ensure that MLG thinking will have a sustained impact over time for quality teaching and learning.

For me, any form of research is about developing a reflective mindset and with this, it has a direct a impact on practice. In working and thinking in this way, we get to the point where we are confident enough to implement the small but meaningful changes (MLGs) in teaching practice that will make a big difference in learning outcomes.

The MLG tool: Micro Action Research

Micro action research is the methodology that is most suited to implementing Marginal Learning Gains in your practice and ensuring that the aggregation happens. If Marginal Learning Gains is the philosophy, then micro-action research is the methodology. At the end of which, the Learning

Gains can be pulled together (aggregated) to ensure sustained impact. There’s clearly a synergy between the methodology and the philosophy of MLG.

In micro action research, you focus on developing just one aspect of pedagogy (which you have identified from one or all of your three evidence sources listed above) with a specific group within a limited timeframe. Once you have developed this one aspect, embedded it and sustained it as part of your practice, you simply identify another key component and apply the same process. That’s where the Aggregation of Marginal Learning Gains starts to really take a hold.

This is how it works…The Micro Action Research Question

Rather than asking, “How can I improve my teaching from (x) to (y)?” and with this question, getting frustrated because you feel that you’re doing everything you know you should be doing, micro action research requires you to reframe the question in SPECIFICS, so that you can easily and systematically assess the impact of any specific changes you test out. So your question will sound more like this,

“To improve my teaching from (x) to (y)…” becomes…

“How can I use [SPECIFIC STRATEGY] (e.g. paired discussion) SO THAT I see an improvement in the [LEARNING OUTCOME] (e.g. quality of learning talk) with [FOCUS GROUP] (e.g. five Year 9 boys) over [TIMEFRAME] (e.g. three lessons) ?”

The handy thing about this approach is that the research can be undertaken without making massive changes or requiring hours of pre-planning. By adopting a reflective mindset in the first lesson, you are using the Marginal Learning Gains (IAD) approach at a meta-level and in doing so, embedding it in your own thinking.

In your first lesson, you IDENTIFY what your focus needs to be. Between the first and the second lesson, you ANALYSE the characteristics of what you EXPECT when you listen to ‘quality learning talk’ in this instance and then, in the second and third lessons, you can DEVELOP those specific characteristics through the small changes you implement.

In doing this, you don’t have to undertake a whole-scale re-programming of your  teaching preferences and style but instead, you are free to focus your attention on a specific aspect of your repertoire. You can then engage in a highly reflective process that will not only develop this specific aspect of teaching but, more importantly, shape the way in which you design learning at the outset.

If you merge this with some developmental lesson observations as part of a focused MLG coaching programme, then you’ll have a model for teaching and learning development that is sophisticated in terms of depth of thinking and quality reflection but simple in terms of manageability. This is a Low Input: High Impact model for professional development. And if you want to know more about how the developmental coaching programme works, I’ll be posting about that soon.