I’m not sure who said this originally, but I remember seeing it years ago, on a postcard stuck to my parents’ fridge. It’s a joke of course (the whole thing about making mistakes is that we don’t plan to make them!) but then, like all good jokes, I think there’s also a universal truth behind it.
It’s widely believed, and widely spouted in educational literature, that putting ourselves into situations where we take risks and inevitably make mistakes can lead to learning. We could go even further (and possibly make a mistake by doing so:-) ) and suggest that making mistakes is actually central to learning. If we don’t make mistakes are we actually learning anything at all?
How does this apply specifically to language learning? Here’s an example where I learnt something in Spanish.
Many years ago I was sitting on the Santiago metro with my young son next to me in a pushchair. Opposite me was a man (a native speaker of Chilean Spanish) who had a baby who seemed roughly the same age as mine. I took a risk and started speaking to him even though I didn’t feel very confident about the accuracy of the words I was using. The short exchange which followed provided a safe framework (or scaffold) in which I could experiment with the Spanish word for ‘crawl’.
Me: y cuantos meses tiene el tuyo? (and how many months old is yours?)
Man: nueve (nine)
Me: y gatilla? (and does he ‘pull the trigger?’)
Man: Gatea? Gatea. Si (crawl? He crawls. Yeah.)
Despite me pronouncing the word incorrectly, the man understood what I’d meant, reformulated the inaccuracy and continued with the conversation. It was a moment of learning for me that happened as a direct result of me making a mistake.
In our new Facebook live curriculum based sessions we have two teachers working together to provide language clarification and language practice activities for students at different grades of ‘English for Palestine’. Of course the students can’t take risks orally (as in my example) because they only have the option of writing comments. But in fact the opportunities for learning from their mistakes in these sessions may be even greater than if they were taking place face to face. There are three reasons for this in my opinion.
Firstly, when things are written down there is a permanent and clear record of what’s been produced . This means that it may be easier for the two teachers to notice learner language, and they therefore have opportunities to provide personalised feedback on the comments and orally reformulate what the students have written. Secondly, there are lots of other teachers participating in the sessions too, (as observers or for their own professional development), and these teachers can provide written reformulations on what the students write. Thirdly, because these reformulations provided by the teachers are written there is more potential for the students to notice them and consequently learn from them.
Here’s an example of this from Sahar and Lauren’s session last Saturday morning. They were doing a really nice personalised practice activity where Sahar wrote ‘What is your favourite hobby’ on her mini-whiteboard, and then invited the students to write their answers. You can see what happened in the comments on the right. It’s great that Sahar and Lauren had created a learning environment where Luay felt brave enough to make a mistake, and I hope that he felt encouraged and supported by the response that I gave him and could learn from it.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all language learners around the world went to their classes with the attitude of ‘I’ve learnt so much from my mistakes I think I’ll make some more‘? Wouldn’t it be wonderful too if all language teachers did their very best to create a learning environment where this attitude could thrive. I’d love to read your views on this in the comments below.