Beyond the Classroom: Embrace Errors and Grow Your Brain 

Photo by Varvara Grabova, Unsplash.

Psychologists know that brain science teaches us about the most interesting elements of learning. Mistakes, for instance, will actually grow us in both conscious and unconscious ways. And as parents, we need to show our children that mistakes are not only okay, but that they are actually necessary to succeed. “The best thing parents can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning,” says Carol Dweck, Stanford University professor of psychology who specializes in human motivation.  

As parents, we can increase our own children’s motivation by taking the five steps below: 

  1. Start by noticing strengths and build from them: If we devote our mental energy to creating and processing negative thoughts, we crowd mental capacity. Instead, start with higher interest and skill activities, such as calculating fractions while shooting hoops or measuring cupcake ingredients, and model how to build momentum. 
  2. Embrace a growth (as opposed to fixed) mindset: If we orient our minds to look for deficits, a moment of confusion can confirm the idea that learning cannot happen. To model a growth mindset, let your kids observe you coach yourself through a task you are insecure about. And repeat this over and over so they see that you learn through this process. 
  3. Take chances and make a mistake: We build brain synapses when we make a mistake even if we don’t take time to try to learn from it. The increased electrical activity from a conflict between a correct response and an error, an ERN Response, fosters brain growth. A second response, a Pe Response, occurs when conscious attention is paid to the error. Model for your children by trying out new challenges, even if you make mistakes, as those synapses are still developing. 
  4. Refocus on a growth mindset: When our initial response to an error is, “I’m not good at this,” we cut the chance for even deeper learning. Only a quarter of a second elapses between the ERN and the Pe Response. Research has shown that brains of those who have a growth mindset produce a bigger second signal. 
  5. Engage in deliberate practiceDeliberate practice is a sustained effort to keep trying at something you can’t do well—or even at all. The way to grow is to practice a subject, make mistakes, and learn how not to make the mistake again. Curiosity fuels the desire to practice and if we let go of fear of failure, practice becomes more fun.  

Productive struggle describes this process well because it acknowledges that challenge is essential, but also that we need to work at a level and with an attitude that we can grow from.  Learning from your mistakes is important to growth but letting some go is also valuable, as the synapses grow from making the mistake in and of itself. 

Kevin Miller is a full-time tutor based in Tarrytown. You can reach him at kevsmilltutoring.com or kevinsmiller7@gmail.com

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About the Author: Kevin Miller