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Harvard EdCast: Learning from Mistakes

Maleka Donaldson shares how the ways in which teachers frame mistakes to their students as early as kindergarten can impact lifelong learning.
Maleka Donaldson

Maleka Donaldson

Mistakes are supposed to be part of learning but how educators convey mistakes and respond to them can significantly impact a child's learning experience. Maleka Donaldson, Ed.M.'11, Ed.M.'14, Ed.D.’17, an assistant professor at Smith College, studies teacher-student interactions and responding to mistakes in early learning. 

In her book, From Oops to Aha: Portraits of Learning from Mistakes in Kindergarten, she examines instruction in the classrooms of four public school kindergarten teachers showing the varied ways these interactions happen, and how factors beyond the teachers’ control shape their approaches to teaching and contribute to structural inequities.

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Donaldson talks about how powerful mistakes can be and the different ways teacher’s use them in the classroom.  


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Maleka Donaldson became fascinated with mistakes as a kindergarten teacher. In teaching and learning, it's not as straightforward as just telling a student they got it wrong, she says. In Maleka's research, she's discovered how educators respond to mistakes can make all the difference in the way children learn. She's even written her first book, From Oops to Aha, showing the varying ways teachers use mistakes in their classrooms. When I heard about Maleka's research, I became interested in how little we think about mistakes, even though it's a necessary part of learning. I asked Maleka to tell me more about mistake culture, and how it impacts our learning environments.

Maleka Donaldson: The way that I think of mistake culture is just thinking that there are many different cues in an environment. A mistake culture can be in a classroom, but it can be in a workplace. It can be lots of places. And it's really how people convey whether or not the mistake is okay, how do we respond to it. Just setting norms for expectations, things like that around mistakes. So when I say mistake culture, that's what I'm thinking of. Feedback, that includes facial expressions and words, and what happens after the mistake? How do we engage with it? All of those things form a mistake culture that is influenced by the teacher and the children and the resource level and the supports available and all of those things.

Jill Anderson: You've been researching teaching and learning for a long time and especially mistakes. What attracted you to this topic?

Maleka Donaldson: Well, my interest came from when I was a kindergarten teacher and I was teaching kids with different interests in academics and different strengths. And I, as a teacher, encouraged students that I wanted them to take risks. I wanted them to try new things. And so I would tell them explicitly that I expected to see mistakes. So I had my own messaging around it. And what was really interesting was noticing how different children, even in one environment with all the same resources and the same teacher, would respond in drastically different ways.

I also thought it was interesting to look at myself, teaching kindergarten in two very different distinct context from each other, and how I was able to support the children. How I was able to give feedback varied depending on the circumstances, even though I was the same person with the same passion and presumably the same skill. So that's what got me really, really curious about this. And then when I came to HGSE as a master student, I started having opportunities to explore it from the academic side and really understand the rich research on feedback, and then start to extend that into the interpersonal interactions and the culture and what our normal is.

Jill Anderson: Is that why you look specifically at kindergarten age students versus older kids and the mistakes?

Maleka Donaldson: I know from experience that from maybe even infancy all the way up to senior citizens, everyone is making mistakes all the time and people have feelings about it. Our society conveys this message of, we need to have things correct. I think that's kind of the prevailing message. I think it's interesting in schools that I think a lot of people say mistakes are okay, especially with younger grades. There's this desire to make sure that kids know it's okay to take those risks and that we need to try new things, but then if you look very closely at how people actually behave, it's a little bit of a mismatch sometimes. And I do think part of that... What makes me so interested is kindergarten's the first year of formal education. This is the introduction to how we're going to do school. And so I think it's important to think about how we convey those messages to the kids.

Jill Anderson: Yeah. I was thinking a little bit about that because I know you're looking at the teachers and what's happening in the classroom, but part of me wonders if we know a lot about the teacher's response and how that might set a path for a child's learning trajectory. Or do you go to kindergarten and have an awful experience, and that sets you up for some sort of path of how you respond to mistakes. Do we know about that?

Maleka Donaldson: I mean, we're at a place where kids are coming to kindergarten with a lot of previous experiences. There are also very diverse experiences, so some kids are coming from home and they've never been in a school environment, some kids have been in daycare, some kids have been in preschools that are more academic, and so you've got this wide range. And then layer on top of that, you've got standards that push kindergarten students pretty hard. There are expectations around reading that used to be in first grade and now they're in kindergarten because of this pipeline to college readiness. And so it comes all the way down and we have these developmental concerns, I think, as someone who's interested in early childhood, that we may be asking more of kids than is fair. That's really a challenge and I do think there's been a shift in recent years.

And then another layer to this is resources. Having taught in inner city DC with a class that's a hundred percent African American and then teaching in a small suburban school in Los Angeles and seeing how, when you have resources, when you have an aid who's there every day, when you have parent volunteers, when you have tangible resources, it makes it possible for these micro-level interactions to happen and be able to support the children, to know them better, to give them the feedback for the mistakes that will help encourage them and help them feel positively about them as much as we can.

Jill Anderson: I'm definitely someone who's lived that experience of how much school has changed. Just last year, having a kindergartner, it was crazy how different it was from what I remember, or even my mother who helped out, in terms of the reading. It's just crazy how much they're expected to know. Even the words alone, the sight words.

Maleka Donaldson: It would be all well and good if there was mandatory education before that, but we don't have that. So then it's not really fair. You kind of need to come into kindergarten knowing all the letters and letter sounds or close to it, or at least familiarity. I think sometimes kids get positioned as being behind from day one, when it's the first day of school that they've ever gone to, they didn't do anything. So that makes me sad that kids are sometimes framed as messing up because they simply don't have exposure to some of the... They haven't accelerated and gotten these pre-kindergarten skills. And so a lot of people are working really hard to help make that more equitable, but I also think we should consider, is that even a fair expectation? And what does it do to our college readiness pipeline if we maybe reevaluate what kindergarten is becoming.

Jill Anderson: One of the things that was fascinating to me is that children come to the classroom with so many different experiences, different backgrounds, and there's this talk of no one size fits all approach, and yet the teachers you have researched often have a very particular way that they respond to mistakes. So can you talk a little bit about that?

Maleka Donaldson: Right. I think teaching it's a wonderful field to be in, but it is so challenging and you do balance what you said about not having it be one size fits all. We want things to be differentiated. We want to take into account the learner, the learner's needs, where we want them to go, individual goals. But at the same time, in these kindergarten classes you have between 15 and probably 20, low twenties, that is a large number of students, and so how are we going to get something done?We don't really have the bandwidth to give every single child a separate experience.

Part of what motivates this work for me is showing there are some wildly different classroom cultures, and all of these teachers teach within about a 15 mile radius of each other. So they live geographically in the same area. Many would say, oh, it's kindergarten. You sing songs, maybe take a nap, you read stories. It's so fun. Everybody loves it. Well, the kids in the book were often enjoying their school experience, but they were just having a very different school experience from each other. That's part of our expertise is we have tips, tricks, go-tos. We set norms, and that's what we use in our classrooms. I think of it as a toolkit. They each have a little toolkit. They don't necessarily have the same toolkit as the teacher across town.

Jill Anderson: One of the things I wondered about is if there can be a wrong way to respond to mistakes? Because the styles were so varied. Some teacher is pushed, some teachers encouraged, some redirected, some would steer them toward the right answer. I'm wondering if there can be a bad way to handle mistakes.

Maleka Donaldson: People actually ask me things like this relatively often. They say, what is the best way, or what is the worst way? And I try not to say there is a specific way that we should or should not respond to mistakes. I will say I have a certain educational philosophy, as does every educator and parent and concerned community member. We have our thoughts about how school should be, how teachers should be. And I think that everything has to be put into a perspective. There are teachers that are responding to mistakes in ways that don't feel good compared to my personal educational philosophy that's based on my experience as an early childhood educator, my studies, my research, all of that. But people are making these decisions based on the context that they're in, based on the environment they're in, encouragement from their administrators, their training in whatever program they may go to, mentor teachers, observation experience.

So people are making decisions based on a logic. I may disagree with their logic, and so you could say it's wrong, but they may disagree with my logic and think that how I do it. But I really want to honor that people I think are trying their hardest to do right. And it depends on, what is the goal of education in that classroom. We've got some classrooms that are more focused on outputs, achievement, tests. And if that is aligned with your educational philosophy, you feel that I need to do whatever I have to do to get these kids to achieve, because this is almost life or death. I'm trying to really help them. Where other people will feel differently than that. And I try to be respectful. It doesn't mean that I don't disagree with how some people respond to mistakes, or that certain ways don't feel bad. But I wouldn't say they are bad because people, if you ask them, have a reason. They have a motivation.

Jill Anderson: I mean, have you ever followed a teacher in your research from one school to another, or few schools and seen the shifts in how they do this?

Maleka Donaldson: I wish. The only teacher that I've followed in that way is myself, and I noticed in myself that where I was, the environment, the incentives that were given to me, the school environment, the way teachers support each other, or don't support each other, the actual, tangible resources and manipulatives, access to a copier that works, a tidy room, having an aid. That changes how you teach. One of my teachers in the book, when I left the classroom, I gave him boxes of whiteboard markers, just as a small thank you, and you would've thought I gave him gold. Because some of the feedback that ended up happening in that classroom would be about whiteboard marker use because they were scarce, and we need whiteboard markers in order to do our math problems and to do this and to do that. Where, if you have a drawer full of a hundred whiteboard markers, you aren't going to give feedback on that because it's almost a non-issue.
When you look at the little tiny things that people spend their time on and focus on, you realize, well, I wish we could just give the teacher all the whiteboard markers and then spend your time on something else. Or, I wish we could always make sure that they have an aid when they're doing writing. That would be good for any teacher.

Jill Anderson: A few minutes ago, you mentioned teacher training. Is that a place where teachers learn how to respond to mistakes?

Maleka Donaldson: I think that teachers, they of course receive training about how to teach, but we also bring our own experiences as learners to the table. And so I think teacher training, whether that's ongoing, professional development, or pre-service teachers, that's an opportunity for people to reflect on their own experiences and what are they bringing to their professional lives.

I did an interview study years ago with teachers, and many of them would talk about whether it was a very negative experience or a very positive experience connected to how they think about mistakes. And I never want a child to feel the way that I felt, or I felt so empowered by this and I want to make children feel this way. And so I think layering in technique practice with self-evaluation or self-reflection is really, really important. When I've done that with teachers, I have found people feel nervous about making mistakes as individuals, and I would argue that their anxieties or stresses or philosophy for themselves will directly influence how they act as professionals. Even if they know we're supposed to have growth mindset, we want to be adaptive, we want to lean into risk and try new things, if the teacher for themselves as a learner doesn't actually feel like that, or doesn't actually operate like that, I think that that plays a role.

Jill Anderson: It felt like when I was reading the various portraits of these educators, not that any of them went out of their way to embarrass kids, but it felt like in some cases it was obvious in the redirection and the getting to the right answer, that there was some protection of the kid of even humiliating a kid in front of their classmates and helping them arrive at the right answer. It's really interesting how you just mentioned that personal element to it.

Maleka Donaldson: I also think that just in general, at least in U.S. society, if not many other societies around the world, there is this wanting to shelter or protect from feeling discouraged by mistakes. I know for a fact, this varies around the world. There are many different philosophies of mistakes, and that has definitely been studied by researchers in other countries, and it is different in the U.S.. But particularly in the U.S., and I know other places too, there's this want to soften the blow, want to make everybody feel good. We want to make them feel empowered to keep trying. And I would say, I wish that we could have a way of people feeling empowered to keep trying and know that they made a mistake and not pad it so much or soft ball the answer so much that they don't get to have that experience of wrestling with something challenging.

Jill Anderson: Yeah. And I think one of the other fascinating things is the researchers who you actually profile in the book vary so much that you have someone who is working hard to get kids to have the right answer and the right answer, and then you have some teachers who are, like I just mentioned, being very soft and gentle about how you get to that answer. So the variation is really something.

Maleka Donaldson: I found it pretty interesting. In my opinion, two of the teachers focused a great deal on getting to the right answer. One of them is in the charter school and one of them is in the Montessori classroom actually. Although the children are working independently in the Montessori classroom, they are expected to do the work correctly and they do have to have it checked before they move on. Now they may take two days working on a project. It goes whatever pace they like, they're working independently, but it is important for that Montessori teacher in the book to have these checkpoints and make sure that you did the work right, and that you followed the proper procedure.

In the charter school, there is this push that we need everything 100% correct every time, no partial answers. And that teacher feels very comfortable calling children out and cutting them off and saying, no, that's not right, we need to move on. That sort of a thing. So it's wildly different sitting in those two rooms. They don't look alike at all.

Jill Anderson: You mentioned the value of self-reflection. Do you have any tips that you can share for teachers to help guide them on finding what might work for them?

Maleka Donaldson: I do. One of the most valuable things I think people can do is collect some data on themselves. So whether that's audio recording, video recording, or journaling, get some data about how you have responded to the mistakes, and then do some reflection on what do you think of that? Because sometimes when you play it back, you may not like how it sounds. Or you may say, oh, I like that. I just tried that on the fly. Let me try that again.

When we are in the moment in our teaching, we don't always remember the little tiny details. So when I would interview teachers and I'd say, tell me about a time that a child made a mistake, and what did you do? It took a while for people to actually remember a specific example of a mistake and what they said. So if you at the end of the day, take a minute, do a voice memo to yourself. Voice to text or jot down in a paper journal a couple of notes about an interesting moment that day. And I think if you do that, over a little while you'll compile some information. And of course, the video recording, people generally hate to see themselves, but it tells you so much when you see yourself on camera and you hear yourself and you can hear your tone of voice. I think it's really eye opening to do that. So those are a couple of recommendations that I have.

Jill Anderson: It's how you say it, your facial express. I think I was struck by how some of the educators you profiled said, I agree, and I disagree in the same, hopefully I'm getting this right, in the same tone, which was interesting to think about and just framing a mistake.

Maleka Donaldson: If when a mistake happens or when there's a disagreement, it's said, I disagree, let's talk more about that. It sounds happy. It doesn't sound like you did something wrong. Of course, kids are good at figuring this out and they know, that person, they didn't say I disagree to them. They can figure this out. It's not that we are pretending that we can't tell that it's happening, but it's... Making it sound pleasant, it can be an invitation for further engagement in that way.

It is interesting. And it's not something that we necessarily do outside of these classrooms. When people say I disagree, it's like an argument or a dispute or a debate, or maybe it gets a little bit heated, but yeah, I like the idea of reclaiming that and letting it be a positive and let's dive into your learning and let's be curious about, well why do you think that? Tell me more.

Jill Anderson: The other thing I find myself thinking a lot about is whether if you look at teachers in the same school, you're seeing a lot of the same ways that they're responding in mistakes based on the school environment and culture, because I wonder how students receive mistakes from one year to the next. Once they get beyond kindergarten, how that might change.

Maleka Donaldson: I think this is a really good question. I would think that in the same school you have the same administrator, the same district. This is public schools, at least. You have the same standards. You have the same pressures. You have the same kind of community that you're serving. I think there will be some similarities across the teachers because of that. There'll certainly be idiosyncrasies because people are individuals. But if there are incentives built into a professional space or requirements, people are going to figure out, how do I meet these requirements for my job?

I don't know that they have the exact same response, but I do think they would have some similar responses. I do know that the charter teacher in the book, that reflects the environment because there are certain values that are held as central to that space, and the teachers work together very closely and they are mentored in all these things and that helps develop that philosophy and teach them how to enact it so that they can get these great academic results.

There are other spaces where they have a lot of pressure to get all these standardized tests done. You have to do this test. You have to do that test. You have to do that test. And all of the teachers are feeling that. We have all these tests we have to do. This takes away from our teaching time. I'm not able to do individualized learning because I have to administer these individual tests to five year olds. And so I would think among the kindergarten teachers who all have to do all these tests, there would be some similarities and strategies that could be similar, and there would be some approaches, challenges that would be similar within that same space.

Jill Anderson: I have one final question. I think about parents and caretakers. Oftentimes parents and caretakers seem to pay attention to things like how discipline is handled in a school, but I'm not sure they're thinking very much about how mistakes are handled in a classroom. Do you think that's something that parents and caretakers should spend a little more time paying attention to?

Maleka Donaldson: I absolutely think that's something worth paying attention to, because if you are picking the first classroom for your child and you're not in education, you may not even know what to look for. So you might go on a school tour and be thinking about, what does the classroom look like? How does the principal describe it? What's the lunchroom look like? What's the schedule? But you wouldn't know the day to day, tiny interactions that teachers and students have with each other. You wouldn't even know what to look for.

So by slowing it down and building it out play by play, and looking at this particular facet of classroom culture, I think it gives a sense of what is school like in a kindergarten classroom. That could be very helpful to people who are making decisions and maybe able to inform some of the questions they ask as they're deciding where they'd like their child to be for kindergarten or other grades.

Jill Anderson: Any hints or advice on how to pose that question?

Maleka Donaldson: I actually don't know that it is a question that someone can just answer. I think that parents should ask to be able to see the classroom and look at how the classroom's laid out. And what I really think would help is if they could, if it's possible, to visit and be able to listen in on how the teachers and children interact with each other. Keeping in mind that if there's a visitor, it's going to be a showcase, so it's not going to necessarily... The teachers I worked with, I was there with them for many weeks, so I was able to kind of become a part of the fabric and see what was really happening. But I think seeing it for yourself and saying like, do I like this or not? And more than five minutes, like 30 minutes or an hour to really see, could I watch a lesson?

I'm not sure how feasible it is for everyone to go watch a lesson, but I think it would be a nice way to get a sense for yourself of how that feels. It also gives a way to communicate with children about the experiences they're having, and you kind of know some of the lingo and some of the norms and how things work. That can help you gauge how it's going.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much, Maleka. This is all very fascinating information and lots of good tips in here.

Maleka Donaldson: Well, thank you so much for inviting me. I really enjoyed talking to you and I'm excited to have this out in the world.

Jill Anderson: Maleka Donaldson is an assistant professor of education and child study at Smith College. She's the author of From Oops to Aha : Portraits of Learning from Mistakes in Kindergarten. I'm Jill Anderson, this is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.