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Learning From Mistakes

By examining the responses both students and teachers have to students' mistakes, doctoral candidate Maleka Donaldson Gramling hopes to gain new insight into classroom learning.

Maleka Donaldson Gramling
When Maleka Donaldson Gramling was teaching kindergarten, she noticed that her students exhibited different responses when they made mistakes. Some, she noted, were nervous about making any mistakes — but with a little encouragement, they began to take risks, and “grew by leaps and bounds.” On the other hand, there were others who were so anxious about making mistakes that they would not take any risks at all, and she noticed that their anxiety slowed the process of their learning.              

“I observed the powerful role that making mistakes plays in learning, as well as the huge influence that my attitude and feedback could have on a child's perspective on mistakes,” she says.

Now, as a doctoral candidate at HGSE, Donaldson Gramling’s research focuses on the responses of both teachers and students to student mistakes. “I focus a great deal on considering the context for learning and for teachers' and learners' responses to mistakes,” she says. “As I do my work, I don't really focus on drawing a hard line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feedback, but as I talk with teachers I instead try to maintain an open stance and listen to my participants to understand their unique perspectives in context.”

For her dissertation, Donaldson Gramling will collect in-depth teacher interviews and “rigorous, systematic observations” of the daily life of kindergarten teachers and students.

“I'm trying to draw attention to the nuanced considerations that make a huge difference when teachers work with students in everyday life,” she says.

This year, Donaldson Gramling was one of four students to receive the Julius B. Richmond Fellowship from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, a one-year fellowship within the university that provides students with $10,000 stipends for their research. Each year, a small number of students with excellent records and proven interest in research related to child health, learning, and behavior are awarded the fellowship prize.

The Richmond Fellowship will fund Donaldson Gramling’s dissertation research of kindergarten teachers, as well as provide her with more inter-university opportunities. “As a fellow, I will have the opportunity to connect with and get feedback from professors from across the university, and fellow doctoral students from diverse fields who are similarly driven to improve the well-being of children,” she says.

Though her career began with kindergarten teaching and her interest in kindergarten teachers and students continues, her love of research is what keeps her in academia. “I loved teaching kindergarten, but I was always very curious about how children grow and develop,” she says, noting that her insatiable curiosity about how people learn is part of what drives her.

Donaldson Gramling also realizes, she says, that difficult work of early childhood educators is often underestimated and wants to use her research to help change that. She feels that by “generating knowledge, teaching teachers, and educating the public more broadly about learning from mistakes,” she will be able to help more students than she could in the classroom.

“I want to do research that has a tangible impact in the field of education and improves the daily experiences of children around the country and perhaps the world,” she says. “I have incredible advisers and mentors at HGSE who have demonstrated the power of skillful and supportive teaching. I hope to always be a teacher, and would love to teach teachers, both before and while they are in their classrooms, in order to help them to better understand possibilities in learning when we pay close attention to learning in context.”


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