As a teacher I worked with students of all ages from elementary school, through middle and high school and finally at the university level. Without fail, on the first day of class I’d layout and discuss rules that would guide the semester.
Yes, there would be a listing of books to be read, topics to be covered, forms of writing to be explored, and problem solving techniques. Most importantly, however, was the attitude and process that would be in play.
As a child, I hated the “If you don’t know what you did wrong, I’m not going to tell you” approach—it was deadly. I’m a great fan of setting clearly defined expectations at the beginning. Although the wording might have changed over the years as I moved from teaching ten year-olds to twenty somethings, the messages were consistent.
Here’s the list of “rules” I have collected from various sources over almost forty years. I reviewed one by one on the first day of class… and kept the list posted in a highly visible spot all year long:
- Mistakes help us learn.
- You’re not supposed to understand everything the first time around. Critical thinking, pushing beyond the obvious, and perseverance are what count.
- Good students ask for help and for lots of feedback on their work.
- Consistent effort and effective strategies are the main determinants of success.
- Everyone is capable of high achievement, not just the fastest ones.
- If you try hard, learn from your errors, and persist, you can succeed.
- Mistakes are not signs of weakness. They’re data to use. They’re an opportunity for learning. Don’t be afraid of them.
I’m noticing that these are “rules” that I seem to use everyday, no matter what the venue. Whether it’s reading a challenging book like Jonathan Safran Foer’s new, unusual Tree of Codes or attempting a complicated sweater design or a sudoku puzzle, the rules help me push beyond chaos and get to something meaningful. Getting rid of the fear of failure and using our own learning experiences as a tool is one of the best lessons we can learn.