We were nearly to her classroom door when I complimented my third grade friend. We’d just read together–actually she read to me–and I thought she’d done quite well. She impressed me with her vocabulary when she replied that she was actually much more “fluent” when she read to herself. I of course asked why.
Her reply was about being self concious and therefore “embarassed” when she made a mistake reading outloud. I confess my reply was a straight shot from the hip, “Don’t you ever be embarassed over mistakes when you are reading with me. Mistakes are an important and natural part of learning. And they actually can be fun.”
Usually these conversations are more about how the mind works faster than the mouth, but for some reason her discomfort seemed wrong. Of course we should challenge others to do well and to a healthy extent avoid errors. But the fear of failure can be paralyzing.
Later the same day I ran into my “giggler” friend. A year ago she was reading to me and when she came to the word “briefcase” she read “beer case.” For reasons I still don’t understand, her mistake struck me very funny. She and I ended up with the giggles for longer than was probably appropriate. She still remembers that day and the mistake–fortunately in a happy way that makes us both smile. I think it’s important that we laughed at the mistake; we didn’t laugh at her.
Recent studies are showing that students perform better in school and felt more confident when they were told that failure was a normal part of learning, bolstering a growing body of research that suggests much of the same. When I’m working with adults, I find that an important part of the process is to create a “safe” learning environment where mistakes can be made and judgement gets suspended. To that end, I’ve adopted the “Learner’s Bill of Rights” developed by the folks at Trainer’s Warehouse. Consider two of the ten.
IV. No unreasonable searches and seizures.
While facilitators may search for a right answer, learners have the right to make mistakes. If one is unable to answer a question correctly, the instructor will not cause embarassment.
VII. The right to a jury of peers.
You are entitled to a classroom of peers who will not judge or jeer, but make you feel safe and supported when faced with new challenges.
We would do well to consider creating a safe learning environment for others and ourselves. I remember once being part of a team that suffered a major mistake. The team leader said, “Well, we won’t make that mistake again.” I replied, “Nope, we’ll make some different ones.” He was not amused.
Creating a safe learning environment is about a willingness to allow mistakes that is balanced with a desire to “do well.” It’s really about avoiding mistakes, not fearing or focusing on them.
(For copies of the Learner’s Bill of Rights, please contact Trainer’s Warehouse at 800-299-3770 or www.trainerswarehouse.com.)