Culture of Error

Nov. 23, 2015
Doug Lemov

Doug Lemov

Author of 'Teach Like a Champion' and 'Practice Perfect'

Schools are learning organizations. Their goal is to help people assimilate new knowledge and apply it to solve challenging problems.

This statement applies as much when the ‘people’ in question are the adults in the building as it does when they are the students. In other words, a school’s goal — its primary one, you could argue — is to help teachers solve the inherent challenge of getting a diverse group of learners — different in every class and sometimes each day — to mastery on a wide variety of topics.

I was thinking about this when I was in Boston earlier this year, speaking to a group that works with schools and districts across the US. Their goal is to help schools use data to drive instruction: assess what students can do; feed that data back to teachers; consult with the schools on how to adapt and change instruction and how to train teachers to do that. It sounds like great work. It is great work. But one of its challenges is the same as one of the key challenges of the classroom and it, in my mind, turns out to be one of the key challenges of school leadership.

It’s something I refer to in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 as building a Culture of Error. First let me describe what this means when it exists in the classroom. Then I will describe what it means when it exists among the adults in a school.

In the classroom

In the classroom a teacher who has established a culture of error has made it safe to be wrong. Students are comfortable with the idea that they will make mistakes as they learn to solve complex problems and respond not with defensiveness but openness. Teachers honor and praise this process saying things like “I’m so glad you made that mistake; it’s going to help me to help you.” Once errors are comfortably exposed, teacher and students study them to learn from them - Why did so many of us not understand what Orwell meant in the passage? The benefits are not just feel-good. If the primary job of the teacher is to recognize the difference between “I taught it” and “they learned it,” that difference is ten times harder to recognize and fix if students try to hide their mistakes. Efficient learning requires comfort with mistakes.

But I probably don’t have to explain that to you. As an educator you are probably struck by the perfect sense of making it safe for students to be wrong as a tool for accelerating learning. What’s surprising is how hard it often is for schools to apply the same logic to the adults in the building. Consider: how often does a school leader visit a teacher’s classroom only to see the teacher begin calling on students who are likely to answer correctly. The teacher is thinking: I must hide the inherent struggle of this lesson. And the result is that it becomes harder to learn from.

Among adults

But also consider by contrast this vignette. On a recent school visit I was walking down the hallway and saw a teacher I know fairly well. “Hello, Katie!” I hailed the teacher. “Oh, hi,” she said, hurrying past me down the hallway. “I can’t talk now. I just taught the worst lesson and I have to tell Jamie about it.”

This was a fascinating moment, and a tremendously positive one for the school’s culture. I mean of course teachers have bad lessons. Anyone who has taught knows this. Some reliable percentage of our lessons don’t go as we want. The point is not to not struggle but to learn the fastest from that struggle, and Katie’s first response was not to hide the difficulties she was facing but to find someone to talk to about it. Her belief was that the people around her would help her to learn from it and keep it from happening again. But in fact the story is even more compelling when you consider who Jamie is. Jamie is Katie’s principal. Her boss, the person who evaluates her was the first person she wanted to talk to when things got tough. If there is a better sign about a school’s culture than that I don’t know what it is.

But I should also note that this is a rare thing. In most schools, leaders don’t do enough to make it safe to expose and discuss the difficulty in the work. Teachers hide their errors and therefore schools don’t benefit by learning from them. They fail to get better faster.

This, I think, is worth reflecting on as a school leader: what’s my role in making it safe to be wrong? When I ask teachers to do something do I assume it will be difficult? Do I make time to talk about what’s hard about implementing to honor that side of execution? Do I comfortably acknowledge and share my own mistakes with my colleagues? Do I create value from the errors we discover with a smile on my face? This to me is one of the hidden skills of leadership and it reminds me of the words of General Colin Powell:

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you’ve stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

By Doug Lemov, Author of Teach Like a Champion and Practice Perfect

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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