When her algebra students are struggling with a proof, Sheena Tart-Zelvin exhorts, “I expect you to be making mistakes. If you are getting everything right, then it is too easy, and I am wasting your time.” Lauren Allen, who teaches Grade 6 math and Grade 7 science, imparts a similar message to her students by connecting it to one of their shared interests, rock climbing. She tells them, “You should be working hard enough to make mistakes; you should be falling off the wall.”
In order to work hard enough to make mistakes – to be falling off the wall – one must first be willing to take risks. Sure, we can encourage our girls to be risk-takers, but as educators and parents, if we don’t create the conditions under which our girls can take risks, they will not be inclined to do so. This means we have to implement classroom norms and learning activities that not only encourage risk-taking, but also offer a chance for experimentation in a safe, trusting environment. Take for example, Grade 7 and 8 social studies teacher Kirsten Gustavson, who accomplishes this in two ways: using structured collaborative learning techniques to encourage dialogue between small groups of students and “learning logs,” a digital journal of sorts, which allows for an intimate, facilitated dialogue between student and teacher. Because the topics Kirsten asks girls to reflect upon can be polarizing in terms of public opinion, the small-group or private student-teacher format allows girls to practice sharing their personal opinions in low-stakes settings before sharing out with the larger group.
So what happens when students take risks? They either succeed or they make mistakes. By establishing norms in our classrooms and homes that mistakes are our girls’ way of showing us what they still need to learn, we invite more risk-taking and, ultimately, more learning to happen. Research shows that when we make mistakes, our brain actually grows. Just ask our Grade 5 students who are participating in the Stanford online math course that teaches them this very principle. Michelle Icard of the Washington Post espouses the benefits of middle schoolers making mistakes at this time in their life and takes it even further, advising parents to encourage risk-taking in their young adolescents, as it will actually prevent them from getting into trouble later on.
So what happens if a Hamlin girl falls off the wall? We tighten our supporting ropes, encourage her to get back on, and help her plan a new route to the top.