Dr. Maleka Donaldson shares how school leaders can either encourage or discourage teachers from taking new risks and learning from mistakes. What coaching conversations should occur to uncover teachers’ beliefs, habits, and notions around mistakes? How does a coach personalize coaching with that understanding? What is the “error climate” in your school?
Visit Dr. Donaldson’s website here.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening. I’m thrilled you’re here.
Steve: 00:34 Coaching the process of learning, rather than the right answer or the performance. Joining the podcast today is Dr. Maleka Donaldson, who is an assistant professor of education and child study at Smith College. She is also the author of, “From Oops, to Aha: Portraits of Learning from Mistakes in Kindergarten.” I reached out to Maleka after reading a piece that she posted with Learning Forward, and the title of it was, “How to Make the Most From Mistakes.” She stated in that article that leaders can either encourage or discourage teachers from taking new risk and learning from mistakes. I invited her to share those behaviors that coaches and leaders should be taking. Welcome Maleka.
Dr. Donaldson: 01:33 Thank you for having me today.
Steve: 01:35 I’m delighted. I’m delighted. I’m wondering if you’d begin by telling us about your learning and insights around the concepts of of mistakes and learning.
Dr. Donaldson: 01:47 Sure thing. So, my passion for this topic really comes out of having been an early educator working in kindergarten and in preschool, and I became really fascinated, not just with checking the boxes of whether kids are getting things right or wrong, but the process, the context, in which we make mistakes in which we get feedback, and how that impacts the learner’s response to what’s in front of them and their willingness to lean into that, to learn from that. And really, I’ve just seen in so many ways over the years how mistakes are critical to learning. They’re a very important part of learning. But in many societies, they are kind of downplayed something we want to avoid, something we don’t wanna talk about sometimes. And so that’s why I am really passionate about thinking about and talking about this topic.
Steve: 02:45 Favorite example of mine – I’m trying to learn German on DuoLingo, and when I make three or four mistakes in a row, a little celebratory message comes up on DuoLingo that says, “making mistakes is a wonderful way to learn!”
Dr. Donaldson: 03:31 Well, part of what you’re describing is that as a learner – and I am on Duo as well and love it
Steve: 04:15 In your article, you discuss the importance of uncovering the beliefs, habits, and notions that people have about mistakes. So I’m wondering how we might do that in coaching and I guess, what are some of those beliefs that you’ve found as you’ve worked with people in this area?
Dr. Donaldson: 04:35 Absolutely. So over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a lot of teachers about this topic and also lead courses, professional development, all sorts of things. And what I find is that, when I start an interview with a teacher, they’ve never really talked about this usually explicitly, but they can talk to me for an hour or more and they’re very specific. We all have a philosophy about mistakes. Teachers or not, we have ideas about the role of mistakes, where it’s safe to make them, where it’s not safe to make them, how we like to be talked to about them, how we talk to others about them, but we don’t always make that explicit. And so I think that by saying out loud directly what our beliefs are and kind of recalling, well, how have I done it in the past, is helpful.
Dr. Donaldson: 05:25 I think in general, if you ask almost anyone, they will say, “mistakes are important, we should make mistakes. That’s part of learning.” But in my experience, like talking to people in different environments, observing across different environments, how that is enacted in practice through even non-verbal communication and rules and incentives and rewards in a classroom or in a workplace that is going to make those words mean something different in different spaces. So that’s why I think it’s just so important. I think if you have a self-awareness about it, then you can have the opportunity to potentially tweak what you’re doing because you realize what you’re doing.
Steve: 06:10 So do you see coaches uncovering a teacher’s thinking about mistakes as part of helping the coach understand the teacher?
Dr. Donaldson: 06:22 I think so. I think that if a coach can build that trust relationship in which the teacher can kind of share their viewpoint and perspectives on that, then there can be a conversation to be had about that. And what I find a lot of times is that educators and perhaps everyone, we have a story. Many people will have a story about how making mistakes didn’t make them feel good when they were a kid or how a classroom was structured. And they don’t want anyone else to feel like that, or they had a good experience, and they want people to feel like that. And I think if a coach is able to draw that out, then that’s really valuable information to think about. If there was a negative experience, like how can I help the person I’m working with to figure out how do I translate that passion, that desire to make things positive in very concrete ways that’s going to accomplish what the teacher really wants to do.
Steve: 07:20 Thanks. There’s a term that I found in your article that I don’t think I’ve seen before. So I wanted to ask you about it: error climate.
Dr. Donaldson: 07:30 Right. And so error climate, I think the most simple way to say it is just, it’s sort of the norms. It’s how people perceive and use and think about mistakes within the social environment of the classroom. So the interpersonal interactions among teachers and students. And that can be peers, that’s teachers to students, and just how is that seen or supported? And obviously, we really want a positive or favorable error climate as the term is used in the literature, that mistakes are being integrated into the learning process in a positive and productive way. That when mistakes are made, that’s something that can build learning rather than people are shutting down. And some of that’s going to be the environment, and some of that’s gonna be individual differences, whether it’s a student or a teacher. How individuals respond to mistakes, even in a really favorable error climate, somebody’s not gonna like it still because of their life experience.
Steve: 08:38 So that becomes part of the personalization of my teaching and of coaching.
Dr. Donaldson: 08:44 Mm-Hmm. Absolutely.
Steve: 08:47 I use the term that we need to create an environment where people are comfortable with discomfort and teachers get that with their kids. I gotta create this classroom environment where kids are comfortable with the discomfort of risking and making mistakes. But then as a teacher, I’m not so comfortable opening my door up to have that colleague or coach visiting because we haven’t created that climate similar to the one we’re saying is critical for kids.
Dr. Donaldson: 09:24 And it’s so difficult. I’ve worked with student teachers for a long while, and there’s this desire we feel as teachers to –
we want to do right by the kids. We want to make sure we get this right. And I really try to coach them and encourage them and say, but how could it be perfect the first time? I mean, in your first year, you’re gonna take all the things you learned, your student teaching experiences, your past experiences, you’re gonna do the very best job you can do, but this is the first time you’re doing this. We have to show ourselves grace that this is a craft. This is our profession. This is not just step one, two, and three, and now I’ve taught and it’s gonna be perfect.
Dr. Donaldson: 10:10 We can’t be perfect. And in addition to that, we have different people coming in the room every year. So even if this year, the way I did it, “oh, I think I perfected it,” new personalities, new background experiences, all of that is coming through the door. And so I think coaches could really encourage teachers in realizing this is a dynamic experience and it’s going to ebb and flow, and it’s gonna be different from year to year and to show themselves that grace, especially when they’re early and they’re developing their craft and their expertise, which can take a decade more to really get good at that. And still we’re going to mess up. So my philosophy is, I expect to make mistakes. I’m going to mess something up no matter how much I do it. And that’s whether I’m leading others or teaching directly or learning myself. I am not perfect. I am human. And if we can keep that humanity in all these aspects of our teaching and learning, I think we can maybe be a little bit kinder to ourselves when it comes to mistakes.
Steve: 11:18 Yep. There’s a personal story going through my head here. Just the other night, my wife and I had a conversation going back and forth. She was in the living room, I was doing dishes, and I said something that I thought was funny that she didn’t hit as funny
Dr. Donaldson: 11:58 And I think it’s hard if someone is in an environment where you’re being evaluated in a very firm way where there’s not that flexibility, that if someone says, “you know what, you made a mistake. Next time I would do this or that…” And you’re like, “oh my gosh, I’m being marked down. This is terrible. They think poorly of me.” If they know I believe in you as a teacher, I believe in what you’re doing. I see growth in these areas, and I see places to grow, and we’re always gonna see growth and places to, to grow. Let’s have an ongoing conversation about it instead of, I did it, I made it, I arrived, 100%. This is not that kind of business, just like marriage.
Steve: 12:40 Yep. That’s what exactly what I was thinking. In your article, you talk about curiosity as an important element and that’s something I’ve always stressed in working in the area of coaching. I’m wondering if you’d expand a little bit on that for us.
Dr. Donaldson: 12:59 Right. I think that if we lead with curiosity, then we’re kind of being more inquiry-based. We’re exploring, we’re trying to figure things out. We’re trying to understand our learners, we’re trying to understand our teachers who are, who we’re coaching, rather than there’s a right way to get to it, we need to make sure that we get you right. So if it’s, we’re gonna be growing, we’re gonna be expanding our capabilities, we’re gonna make some mistakes along the way but let’s figure out, what do you wanna know? And then let’s put in the effort to improve those skills instead of just like, what’s the right way to do it? Let’s get to the right way as fast as possible. Because I just think it has to be more dynamic than that. There has to be that give and take and that space for just not trying to make everything be perfect, because we just can’t be perfect. It’s not possible.
Steve: 14:01 So approaching with curiosity almost has an expectation of finding mistakes.
Dr. Donaldson: 14:08 You’re going to find things that are not exactly right and it’s not just about like, let’s get to this final result which is perfect teaching, which, is there? Is that the goal? Is that even possible? You know, it’s not just getting to this final result. It’s that along the way we are growing, we are building, we are building up a repository of experiences with individual children, with teaching certain content – stories that help make us who we are as teachers. And so if a coach is able to, like, let’s engage in thinking about those things along the way, when something doesn’t go as planned, let’s talk through, well, what happened? Tell me about it. And not in an evaluative way that’s like, well, what happened? Why did that not go right?
Dr. Donaldson: 14:59 It’s more like, what do you think happened? Why didn’t that work? Oh, you know what, I think I over-planned. I think I was so fixated, I wasn’t able to be flexible in the moment. Well, let’s think about how would we help you be more flexible? What could you do next time so that it’s not in fear, it’s not about just next time you did, and it was right 100%. You’re gonna have to do it again and again and again in slightly varied circumstances. We’ve gotta learn how to be nimble with this.
Steve: 15:26 There’s almost a curiosity in your voice tone.
Dr. Donaldson: 15:30 Yeah. And I don’t know what’s coming. When that new class of kids walks in, that teacher doesn’t know exactly what’s gonna happen. They’ve got some good ideas and things that are planned, but we don’t know. And so getting some help and being okay with a little bit of that ambiguity, it’s fun to think like, what personalities are you gonna have and how can you help someone to lean into that and be also excited and curious. Like, how do I help this kid? This kid has this thing, asking their coach, “what can I do to, to help them grow? I’ve tried this, I’ve tried that. I don’t know if this is working.” And then it’s more about caring for that person, being in a community, being curious about who they are and how I can best support them, how I can be a better teacher.
Steve: 16:22 I frequently describe that a key behavior for leaders is what I like to call modeling the model. What it is I’m expecting from others, I build into my own model. So I’m wondering how you have a picture of leaders and coaches modeling the model about mistakes.
Dr. Donaldson: 16:44 I think there should be some level of vulnerability, which can be hard, especially in a professional environment. And what I do for myself in my teaching and mentoring of others is I share about my own mistakes, I share about ways that it didn’t go right. And sometimes that’s from many years ago, and sometimes that’s from today. And seeing the students sit there and go, “what? You mean you didn’t get it perfect? You weren’t perfect?” No, I’m not, and I’m still growing and I’m still trying to improve things. I think that if there can be that little bit of vulnerability, not more than someone’s comfortable with, but just a little bit to show like, I may be the coach, but I have had many years of different experiences and I have not gotten it right all along the way.
Dr. Donaldson: 17:32 I think that’s one way of modeling. Also helping to normalize it and sort of be like, I see this all the time. Like, people are wrestling with this, this is hard work, this is challenging. Gives that sense to someone, I’m not alone. I’m not like, just in isolation. I’m the only one who can’t do it. Everyone else can. I think that that addresses some of those emotional aspects of this that we have, especially like, this is my job, this is my livelihood. I wanna do right by these children. I wanna get this right. And we end up oftentimes, conditioned to move toward being right, but in a human profession. In something that’s gonna be dynamic and be responsive, we’ve gotta try to change some of that framing.
Steve: 18:21 Well, Maleka, I appreciate you walking us through that. I will put a link to your article in the lead-in to the podcast. I’m wondering if you’d let folks know how they might follow up and get back to you with questions or thoughts that they have.
Dr. Donaldson: 18:42 Sure. Feel free to check out my website, malekadonaldson.com, and there’s a contact form there. You’re free to reach out that way.
Steve: 18:52 Alright. I’ll be sure to post your website in the lead-in as well. Thanks so much.
Dr. Donaldson: 18:58 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 19:02 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.