I want my school to be a mosh pit.

I am a child of the 90s, more to the point I am child of central Maine in the grunge era.  My fondest high school memories involve involve late nights and venues like this

An amazing thing happened for rural Maine kids like me (gawky, bored with high school, a bit angry about who knows what) during this period.  First of all despite our spectacular lack of rhythm and grace  we could dance because the dancing was disguised as hurtling yourself like a linebacker into the mosh pit. This was far, far less anxiety inducing than asking a girl onto the floor in the high school gymnasium.  Secondly we could hop onto the stage and dive into the air and be absolutely confident that the waiting strangers would catch us.

I want my school to be like this (ok not so much the dingy, angry part); a place where kids and teachers are pushed to take enormous intellectual and social risks while simultaneously believing that the people around them will keep them safe.

I am in the midst of a book called Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz.  The central premise of the book so far is that we have two ways of looking at error:

Error is bad and we should strive to avoid it all costs.

To err is to be human and it’s one of the main, perhaps the main way we learn.

This premise is easily swallowed for many teachers and leaders.  Carolyn Dweck’s research is widely known and quoted.  We know that we are supposed to develop a growth mindset that normalizes error and embraces challenge.   We know to praise kids for their effort and not being “smart”.

If we know all this, how do we do it?

In the  Skillful Teacher Saphier writes about creating a climate of high achievement for all students; one of the most critical distinctions between high and low achieving classrooms is what students learn about their mistakes.

Mistakes Help

  • Care, Perseverance, and craftsmanship help.
  • Effective effort determines success.
  • Everyone is capable of high achievement.
  • Good students solicit help and feedback.


Mistakes=Sign of Weakness

  • Speed counts.  Faster is smarter or better.
  • Good students do it by themselves.            
  • Only a few can achieve at a high level.
  • Inborn intelligence/character is the main determinant of success.

 Most of us tighten up physically when students make an error as if we were about to get a needle.  If I were more technically savvy I would embed a collage here of teacher and leader faces listening to students give a wrong answer. The array of frowns, parsed lips, and scrunched eyes would be hilarious and telling.  Our kids know we hate their errors; they strive to avoid error; the surest way to do that is to offer safe answers, to raise your hand a split second after someone else, to call the teacher three times for help before attempting the problem.

Things I am pretty sure work to increase the culture of risk taking  and mistake making in schools…

Devote lots of PD time to response to student questions.  I have spent and seen others spend lots of time with Bloom’s charts trying to improve questioning without much overall impact on kids’ thinking.  The strategies for responding to student answers like Lemov’s Stretch it or any of Saphier’s “23 ways to let kids get smart” can be implemented quickly and yield some immediate results.

Student analysis of assessment results.  Stiggins and now Bambrick write powerfully about the impact this has on student outcomes.  The more kids look at their mistakes and wonder about them the less scary those mistakes become.

Embed celebrating mistakes and growth in honor roll assemblies or trips.  

Narrating the positive is a classic management strategy that I see as a part of the large story we are always telling our classes.  Focusing narration on naming and even celebrating error is a behavior I see in many high performing classrooms.

Things I think might work to develop a climate where mistakes help…

Criteria for success that name the number of mistakes a students should make.  For example: Our aim for problem solving today is that you attempt at least three strategies, two of which are unsuccessful and explain why.

Bulletin board that celebrate great mistakes.  These could be a mix of historical figures and stories from the school.

Things I wonder about…

How do adult mistakes fit into all of this?

Does a teacher as researcher mindset lead to higher performing teacher over the long haul because instead of seeing mistakes as failure those teachers see mistakes as data?  I have this theory because of two rookie teachers who almost accidentally got involved in action research with the KIPP Writing Project had incredibly accelerated development, have stayed in the profession for five years and are still trucking.

How do we hire people who love their mistakes?  I have another theory based on a few very random samples and some self serving analysis that if I am interviewing two candidates and all things being completely even I would take candidate B.

Candidate A: Driven, Passionate, Reflective, Founded a social activism organization on campus

Candidate B: Driven, Passionate, Reflective,  played cello or fullback, or danced for ten years.

This theory is still in the extremely crappy stages but based on a few compelling examples I wonder if certain activities (the arts and sports) necessitate lots of failure and therefore make us more comfortable learning from it.  I would love hear if this jibes with anyone’s experience.

Readings and Writings that Link to this idea




2 Responses to “I want my school to be a mosh pit.”

  1. richard barth Says:

    Great post, caleb.

    I wonder if there are ways to make explicit the connection between mistakes and excellence…scientific advancements, I would think, would be loaded with mistakes that made them possible…?

  2. mrdolan Says:

    Science and engineering is loaded with amazing mistakes that yield world-changing results (penicillin, the tire). It’s another argument for more of our schools to strive for quality science programs where kids experience having their hypotheses proven wrong.

    Thanks for commenting

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