Embracing mistakes in the classroom

Posted on 9th Oct 2023 in School News, Which London School?

Miss Antonia Beary, Headmistress at Mayfield School, on why making mistakes is an important learning tool for students.

Our role, as parents and teachers, is to give our young people the skills and the confidence to be the best version of themselves. Nobody achieves success (however, you may choose to define it) without making mistakes, but the pressure on our young people to be perfect, particularly from social media and wider societal influences and expectations, not least those imposed by the spectre of GCSE and A Levels, often clouds their perspective. Education should not simply be about what we learn, but how we learn. What happens in the school environment, therefore, is key, and how we address these challenges of fundamental importance.

Creating an environment where individuals are able to make their own mistakes, and learn from them, should be a priority for us all. An environment where students are not always right, but mistakes will not scar for life. I would like to suggest that expecting every piece of work to be an A* throughout a child’s career, aways being in the first team or playing the leading protagonist, is not going to create the resilient individuals we need to respond to the needs of the age in which we find ourselves. 

This is where creative and performing arts and team sports have a fundamental role to play. Our foundress at Mayfield was ahead of her time in placing creativity at the heart of our curriculum and encouraging an appreciation of interdisciplinary approaches when she established the school over 150 years ago. To be a good scientist you need to be creative; to be a fine artist you need discipline, structure and perspective. Some skills take on greater importance in some subjects than others, of course. Much maligned and often seen as the poor relations, creative subjects, along with sport, are the first to be squeezed out of the curriculum. This is at best shortsighted, and I am convinced has the potential to destroy independent thinking and stifle creativity and teamwork in all sectors of the economy.

In art, as in life, there is seldom just one right answer, one interpretation, one correct approach. It is not possible to play an instrument, recite a speech, draw or sculpt an object perfectly the first time you try. In fact, to create something impressive, you need to put in a considerable amount of time and effort. Creative art does not produce itself - even if you are a genius. Writing a poem or a novel will require many drafts, discarded lines, paragraphs, sentiments before it is completed. This is why studying these creative subjects is so important. You cannot stay within your comfort zone: you have to make mistakes, adapt, revise and learn to make progress. 

To say ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ may be a cliche, but it is also true. (nb being able to make a tasty omelette is a useful accomplishment, and harder to do well than it might seem, yet is a practical life skill which features on few curricula). You need to take risks, step beyond the safe and secure, to achieve something new and interesting, or make your own mark. We need to be educating girls and boys to make mistakes and take calculated risks not simply to improve and broaden their horizons, but to ensure they are able to function and contribute constructively to the society in which they live, and which we want them to be defining and leading.

To do well at GCSE and A Level, you need to learn the answers that the examiner wants you to give, and use the precise terminology required to get the marks. Now, as teachers of course we have a responsibility to provide our students with the information and tools with which to achieve the best possible grades. It is true that to discern what someone wants, and to provide them with information they need in the form they require is a useful skill, so this is an important element of education. But it is not the only one, and sadly it takes on a disproportionate importance in the current education system, overshadowing other more practical skills and talents. If you have good teachers and work hard you can do very well, without necessarily having to think outside the box, or challenge any conventions. However, even if you understand complex concepts, think originally and independently, you won’t necessarily be rewarded with an A*.

Frequently it takes different approaches to encourage making mistakes and learning from them in boys than in girls. Creating an environment where girls feel comfortable to get things wrong and reflect on why things didn’t work out as they expected, then on how to improve, without panicking, stressing or losing confidence in themselves and their ability, is an art. It is frequently a different environment, using predominantly different approaches from those which help boys flourish. Not better, just different, and of course there are some similarities and shared approaches which need to be employed. 

One size does not fit all. We want to be educating a generation who can recognise fake news, who won’t be short-sighted and who will challenge the conventions of contemporary society when it is needed, rather than simply conforming to the values – or lack thereof – of the current hierarchy. If we are going to stop this generation making the mistakes we have made, then they need to begin to make their own, and sooner, rather than later. The best place for this, is in school.

This article first appeared in the 2023/24 edition of Which London School? & the South-East, which you can read in full below: