In the Classroom, Mistakes Add up to Success

As part of a school-wide professional development initiative, we’re reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset this year. Our goal is to learn about the growth mindset in hopes of fostering those beliefs and behaviors in our students, but as I read and talk with my colleagues, I can’t help but think about our own mindsets in relation to our work.

Last week, I read an interesting blog post about success. Instead of subscribing to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hours-to-expert philosophy, Michael Simmons proposes that 10,000 experiments will help us reach our goals faster.

I started thinking about what this means to teachers. We do get better with experience, but putting in the seven or eight years required to reach our 10,000 hours is no guarantee of success. And even if we did reach some level of contentment in our eighth year, it was likely shattered by a 7th period class the next year.

Simmons is onto something by encouraging experimentation, and Dweck’s work backs it up. When we are willing to step outside our comfort zones to try something new, tweak it a little, and try again (and again), we do get better. As we keep experimenting, we keep growing, making us better teachers for our students and happier people for our families.

I had the blessing of starting my teaching career at spring break. I had 10-weeks with that first group of sophomores, and I started experimenting from the start, but not on purpose. They were already reading All Quiet on the Western Front–a book I had never read before. I hit the ground running and I carried out a lot of experiments in that time, making a lot of mistakes, but allowing me to come back so much stronger for my first full year of teaching the next year.

Everything is an experiment when you are a new teacher. Many of us look back and feel a lot of sympathy for those students in our first classrooms. We may not have been the teacher we are today, but we cared, and we were trying, and the kids turned out OK–maybe even better than if they had been in a classroom where the teacher was recycling the same lesson plans he had used for the last ten years.

growth - experiment

This is a tough time of year. We’re in that long stretch where the excitement of back-to-school has worn off and the winter holidays are still too far out of reach. Rather than succumb to the routines you know, trudging toward the break, what would happen if you experimented a little?  Show your kids you care–and that you’re trying to make it better–and try something new.  

You might find a new routine that will motivate your students to study a little harder for semester exams. Perhaps you can try out a new strategy (Socratic seminar? Interactive notebook? A digital tool?) in one class now and then implement it across the board next semester. Let the kids know you’re experimenting–ask for feedback.  It’s important for them to see that we’re not always experts; we have to work at improving, too.

Looking for inspiration? Here are a few experiments you may want to try:

  • use a new text to teach a familiar concept
  • pick a free digital tool–Padlet, Kahoot, Quizlet, AnswerGarden–and use it in a lesson
  • even better, let your students create a lesson using a digital tool
  • use–really useexit slips to guide your instruction of a challenging topic
  • join Twitter; follow authors of professional books you read; participate in a Twitter edchat
  • call a parent to share positive news
  • offer alternative assessments
  • implement a classroom management strategy you saw on Pinterest
  • add a new novel choice to your literature circle options
  • if you’re really brave, ask the students what changes they’d like to see in your classroom

By experimenting with ways to improve our teaching–new content, new strategies, new approaches to classroom management–we’re growing as teachers and providing our students–now and in the future–a greater chance at achievement and success by modeling the habits of a growth mindset.

Have you experimented recently? How did it go?  Please share in the comments. I’d love to hear what’s going on in your classrooms!

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