Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Learning from Mistakes Takes the Right Feedback

I slammed my foot and, to my surprise, picked up speed. The lawn mower headed straight for the newly planted apple tree in our backyard. The sound of mower blades slicing through a thin tree trunk caught my father’s attention. He strode across the lawn, and I prepared to be banished from the riding lawn mower. But my father laughed.

“Do you know what you did?” I nodded and explained I had stepped on the clutch rather than the brake, freeing the mower to roll downhill and over the sapling. “Okay,” he said, “where’s the brake?” I showed him which was the brake and which was the clutch. Chuckling, he explained, “You’ve got it. Don’t worry about the tree. It was dead anyway. Now we won’t have to look at it. Keep going.”

Mistakes, claims Jonah Lehrer, “should be cultivated and carefully investigated.” To the brain, “Disappointment is educational.”1

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake: “Self-criticism is the secret to self-improvement.”2

Since we learn, in part, by attending to our errors, what kind of feedback should we, as teachers, give to our students?

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck contrasted the results of two different types of feedback. One group of students were praised for their intelligence: “You are smart at this.” A second group of students was praised for their efforts: “You worked hard and look at the results.”

The findings? Students praised for their intelligence became easily discouraged when they encountered difficult tasks and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. These students were only content when they could compare their results with students who preformed worse on tasks or tests. In contrast, students praised for their efforts sought challenge, welcomed mistakes, and increased achievement an average of 30% between pre- and post-testing. Lehrer explains:

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the “smart” compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.3
Dweck’s findings mirrors those of Dr. Jennifer Mangels: individuals who believe intelligence is a fixed entity (i.e., you get the intelligence you’re born with) focus on performance and respond to negative feedback (i.e., the identification of an error) by withdrawing and extending little effort. In contrast, individuals who believe intelligence is malleable (i.e., smart is something you become not something you possess) respond to negative feedback with a mastery-orientation, seeking means of correction and learning. Such learners are resilient, responding to set-backs with renewed energy directed toward learning.4

How can we direct student response to feedback so that the mastery-orientation overcomes the performance-orientation? How can we guide student disappointment to careful investigation of mistakes?

Dr. Robert Brooks (2007) suggests couching feedback in “we” statements. For example, rather than telling a student that a response is incorrect and to “try harder,” Brooks suggests, in one-on-one conversation, saying, “This strategy you're using doesn’t seem to be working. Let's figure out why and how we can change the strategy so that you are successful.” Such a response invites a careful investigation of the mistake and makes the interaction a problem-solving experience. A classroom environment that welcomes error as a gateway to learning contributes to better feedback responses.5

My dad responded in a way that kept me moving forward in my learning and mowing the lawn successfully for several years. Disappointment led to reflection and investigation, correction, and renewed interest in getting it right. Guess I learned more than where to find the brake that day.

  1. Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 51, 48.
  2. Ibid., 51.
  3. Ibid., 53-54.
  4. Brooks, R., Mindsets for School Success: Effective Educators and Resilient, Motivated Learners. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
  5. Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).


asiriusgeek said...

Kevin: sounds like you have a terrific dad. I know mine would have had a very different reaction, and the lesson learned would have been less helpful.

Great article, I enjoyed it very much and will attempt to put your suggestions into practice.

5330 said...

Great article for educators and parents alike.

Thank you.


Paul Bogush said...

Great post...I can distinctly remember four "big bad" things I did as a kid that my dad had no response to and to this day they impact who I am.

Once I hacked out of the garage with the back door of the car open...let's just say the door bent in a way cars doors are not supposed to bend. My dad came out, looked, and said I'll give you the bill after it is repaired. To this day 24 years later I always back into spots so I can drive straight out!

Another thing was coming home freshman year of college with a GPA so low that I can't even type it. I thought I was going to get killed wasting their money. No one said a word--I still remember standing at the table looking at it with them. Somehow their reaction taught me that it wasn't their responsibility to make me do better, my education was now in my own hands.
ahhh...sorry, you made me reminisce...

Unknown said...


I once rammed through a door in our house when I was a kid because I was so excited to tell my dad that I could spell "enchilada." His reaction to the door has stuck with me all of these years. He asked what I was hurrying for, and when I told him (I was in tears now), he laughed and said that we'd fix it together, and to make sure doors were open before I walked through them. Sound advice.

My wife and I have been interested in Dweck's work, as well as the writing of Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, who used some of Dweck's work in a series of articles for the NYT a few years back.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...


What a GREAT story. I love your father's reaction—a great example!

I'm not familiar with Bronson and Merriman's work but will definitely research their writings. I heard a great interview on NPR recently with a father who coached a girls' soccer team. His insights on this topic were quite interesting even though they were merely anecdotal. I'll try to find the link to this and post it in a follow-up comment.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Great interview with author Po Bronson, author of Nurture Shock, features comments on this topic: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112292248