Grow Your Brain

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Should we encourage children to make mistakes?

When you make a mistake then your brain grows. If you are getting everything right then there’s not much growing going on. 100% is very overrated and mistakes are very underrated.

Jo Boaler, a Stanford researcher and professor of maths education, argues that we should stop telling children they are ‘smart’ or ‘clever’ and focus on mistakes instead. She says that making mistakes is actually a very good thing,

When we give kids the message that mistakes are good, that successful people make mistakes, it can change their entire trajectory.

Professor Boaler’s website YouCubed describes why we need to promote ‘mistakes-friendly’ environments. She cites research that found when students perceive their classroom as mistakes friendly then their effort increased.

Boaler set up a maths summer camp where the making of mistakes was seen as acceptable, healthy and helpful to brain growth. Children at the camp began to learn that when they made a mistake and got something wrong then this made their synapses fire.

Listen to the BBC Radio 4 clip ‘How mistakes make your smarter’ and find out what some of the children at the youcubed camp had to say about their experience.

When we value mistakes and value what everyone has to say then this sounds a powerful message to pupils that being wrong is ultimately a strength and intelligence part and parcel of a growth mindset.

In her new book Character, Grit & Resilience, C J Simister highlights Jo Boaler’s work within the context of being persistent and engaging positively with things they find challenging.

This practical toolkit contains lots of ideas and advice and C J points to 5 tips for promoting a mistake culture:


1. Be Brave

Tell children that you appreciate a brave risk more than a ‘safe’ right answer.

2. Be Transparent

Tell children that ‘being clever’ doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes because its mistakes that make us and stretch us.

3. Be positive

React to mistakes that children make with active interest and curiosity so you can unearth and understand their thinking.

4. Be restrained

Hold back and don’t dive in trying to help but create opportunities for children to work out what to do for themselves.

5. Be Open

Help children to distinguish between careless mistakes from ‘learning mistakes’ and to adopt an investigative mindset by spotting which is which and what they can do to fix them.

Make No Mistake

Is your classroom at mistakes unfriendly or friendly place to be?

If you have a classroom where children can contribute without fear of being wrong then they have brains that are going to grow and grow because you have provided the psychological safety, ethos and climate to let synapses fire.

4 thoughts on “Grow Your Brain

  1. I’ve a question,or concern, about “mistake-friendly environments.”
    When a student gets things right — handles the problem competently, solves the task, etc.— will he or she be told to do it over … and to please make sure to get it wrong, this time?

    1. If they always get things right, then consideration needs to be made regarding the appropriate level of challenge. Progress of learning takes place when they can’t do something to getting to the point that they can.

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