Dr. Maleka Donaldson, parent, teacher, education professor and author of “From Oops to Aha: Portraits of Learning From Mistakes in Kindergarten,” shares her vast experiences for parents’ consideration. Children at all ages are reading cues concerning the acceptance of mistakes. As parents, we need to be aware of the message we are communicating. How have our past experiences influenced our unconscious responses?
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the parents as learning coaches edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Parents and caregivers play many different roles, and even sometimes conflicting roles as they support children’s development. The pandemic has shown a light on the importance of parents supporting learners. In this podcast, I’ll share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner that can support your coaching efforts.
Steve: 00:35 Learning to learn from mistakes. “From Oops to Aha: Portraits of Learning from Mistakes in Kindergarten,” is the title of a book that was written by our podcast guest today, Dr. Maleka Donaldson. She’s an experienced kindergarten teacher and an assistant professor of Education and child study at Smith College. Welcome, Maleka. Thanks for joining us.
Dr. Donaldson: 01:03 Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here today.
Steve: 01:06 I gotta say, I love the title, “Oops To Aha.” So would you start by discussing the role of of making mistakes when learning?
Dr. Donaldson: 01:18 Honestly, I would say I think mistakes are at the heart of learning, and there’s really a lot of research behind this over
many decades. If we as learners and if children as learners are not given that opportunity to try something new, not get it quite right, get some feedback, I think that cycle is really where the magic happens. And so in my experience as a kindergarten teacher, in my experience teaching college students and graduate students over the years, I’m trying to introduce new ideas, new skills, and I expect that the first time that someone’s doing something, it’s not gonna be perfect. Otherwise, why am I here? You could just do it by yourself. And so I think that mistakes are just really central. And having that relationship between teachers and students, the conversation, emotional safety, and being able to face those mistakes, discuss those mistakes, I think that’s really, really critical.
Steve: 02:15 I have a thought in my mind that kids initially, are wired to learn from mistakes and easily learn from mistakes, and somehow we get moved away from it. Is that making any sense?
Dr. Donaldson: 02:33 It does make sense. I mean, an infant when they’re first born, is immediately learning. They’re learning about how if I do this action, I see this other thing happen. That when I smell things, when I hear things, that means that this other thing is coming. So there’s this sense of we’re having this sensory experience, even as infants and young children learning how to walk. I mean, learning how to walk is just tons of mistakes that’s built-in. I mean, for most children, for most typically developing children, you’re just gonna go through this process and you get there. I think that what happens is children get older, they’re immersed in context, whether that’s home, peers, their neighborhood, faith communities, extended family, and there are norms, there are ideas kind of being said out loud and being reinforced based on how the environment operates, the rules, and how people engage with each other. And so, even before they get to kindergarten, kids have a lot of ideas about mistakes based on their first school, their homes, their families. And so, yeah, I think you might be right that there are some pieces that are hardwired, and there’s been some studies that kind of identify places in the brain that when we make that mistake, there’s the interior singulate cortex, we kind of have this recognition system in our brain that can be measured, but that doesn’t necessarily speak to the social and emotional aspects of it entirely.
Steve: 04:12 So mistakes provide feedback.
Dr. Donaldson: 04:17 Mistakes provide feedback.
Steve: 04:20 So is there a process of learning that causes me to approach a mistake as feedback and be able to use the information I gathered?
Dr. Donaldson: 04:35 Yes. And I actually wanna clarify because, if I’m here by myself trying a new skill alone, and I have no way of giving myself feedback or getting feedback from someone else, I might not be able to learn from my mistake. We have to have some way of figuring out that we’ve made that mistake and like, what should it be going forward. So I just wanna clarify that. I think that this whole idea of learning to use the mistake as feedback to me is about the context and the social context that we’re embedded in. When you make mistakes, do you hide them? Do you store them away? Do you get bad responses when you make mistakes? Do people invite mistakes? Do others make mistakes all the time and it’s fine? Like that nuanced kind of social environment that we’re embedded in.
Dr. Donaldson: 05:29 We’re constantly reading cues as adults are reading cues, children are reading cues. We’re trying to figure out what’s okay, what’s not okay. And so when we think about learning to use mistakes as feedback, that’s what you’re saying is making me think of, is that, is it okay to do that here? Or am I supposed to be perfect here? And so we all have our antenna up, like, what is okay here? What is not? And I think that if we can make the spaces feel safe, then it’s going to allow us to learn from mistakes to a greater degree. Because we can take down the fight or flight fear of like, oh, if I make a mistake, I’m in trouble. And instead it’s like, oh, you might be disappointed, you might be kinda like, “oh, darn, I did it again,” but it’s not like, oh no, I’m scared. I can’t move forward. I’m gonna stop, which a lot of children get really nervous and anxious about mistakes and adults.
Steve: 06:24 So what’s our parenting role?
Dr. Donaldson: 06:26 So I think as parents, we can kind of try to be aware, and I say this as a fellow parent – be aware of what kind of messages
and norms am I giving? And also that’s gonna require some introspection. Like, what was my experience with mistakes and what were my expectations as a learner when I was a child? And then what expectations do I have for my child? And thinking about the level of pressure that we apply and the trade offs and what it gives us and what it takes away. Sometimes applying more pressure does result in a higher output or more success, but then there may be less motivation. There may be less interest, there may be negative emotions associated with something if we’re applying too much pressure. An example I’m thinking of, I’m remembering years ago, I had a little guy who phonetically spelled the word alligator in a writing in a writing project. And I was over the moon because at that age, in kindergarten, it’s invented spelling. All of the sounds were exactly right and I was so excited and we were cheering. But then when the parent saw it, they said, “well, that’s not how you spell that.” And I said, no!
Steve: 07:44 ,
Dr. Donaldson: 07:45 That is how you spell that when you are learning phonics or you are breaking words down into heir sounds. That is actually right. But the kid was like discouraged, like, oh, it was wrong. And I felt like as the teacher in that moment, it’s not the time for me to say, no, that’s not how you spell it. It was the time to celebrate that you applied the skills I’ve given you to this point, and you did it right. Later, if you keep writing alligator over and over again, then eventually I’m gonna say, you know what? I think I can tell you now, there’s actually a way we usually spell it. It’s spelled like this. You could start practicing that. I’m glad to like write it on a card for you if you wanna reference it. And then it’s to make that transition. But there’s kindergarten spelling and then there’s grownup spelling, and they don’t have to be the same. But it was hard for that parent that’s like, I want my kid to have things be right. And so if we can be aware of how do our children potentially respond to things like that, I think that’s important.
Steve: 08:48 So what’s going through my head is I might make a mistake as a parent when my child makes a mistake.
Dr. Donaldson: 08:55 , Right. Yes. And, and some would even argue, especially with younger kids, what is a mistake? Like, how is it a mistake – if they’ve never been taught this thing and you don’t know it, and then you don’t do it right, how could you have done it right? So yeah, I think some reflection, and I just think having an ongoing conversation with ourselves as parents of just being reflective. Like, did I do that right? How might that be received? Is there a way I could frame that, that would he help support my child better? Are there times where I do need to
be more firm or like, this thing really matters, I do want you to be more precise. But I think it always ends up going back to the motivation.
Steve: 09:35 And I’m also guessing that when you’re saying reflection, it’s part of what feedback are you getting from your child?
Dr. Donaldson: 09:43 Mm-Hmm. Like, when I do this thing, what happens? How do they respond? And I think a lot of parents have a sense of that and it’s a moving target. t’s always changing. I have a teenager now, and it’s very different than when my child was two or five or 10. It’s always evolving. And so we as parents have to evolve with them and kind of pay attention when they are having those certain responses and think about why that might be happening. Are there ways we can have conversations with them to better understand what they think? Sometimes they don’t know what they’re thinking.
Steve: 10:21 So I’m wondering if there’s a way to, as we close out here, I wonder if there’s a way to take your title from “Oops to Aha” and actually have a conversation with kids about what that means. What does the title from “Oops to Aha” mean?
Dr. Donaldson: 10:44 Right. I mean, if we are gonna have a conversation where we say, what does that mean? That’s acknowledging that oopses are gonna happen. And the idea of an aha, that moment of like, “oh!” realization is something we want that’s linked to curiosity, awe, engagement, motivation. It’s exciting. And so that’s why for the book, I chose this. I think that the thing really in the book I’m trying to convey is that context. So in the book, it’s focused on school context, just looking at how a range of different factors in different schools. The amount of resources, how many grownups are in the room, the number of students, you know, all these things, the philosophy of education can lead to drastically different responses to mistakes and a different pathway from oops to aha for different children. And so I do hope that parents, when I was writing it, I was thinking of parents actually quite a lot, that if your child’s entering kindergarten, you may not really know the difference between different schools. And so this is an opportunity to see both what is life like in an early childhood classroom at a very granular level, and oh wow, that’s how mistakes are framed here versus there.
Steve: 12:07 Well, thank you. Thank you so much. And I’m wondering if you’d share with with parents listening in here how they might send you some follow up questions.
Dr. Donaldson: 12:18 Sure. My website is malekadonaldson.com and there’s a contact form there. Feel free to reach out.
Steve: 12:25 Well, Maleka, I appreciate your your energy and your encouragement that you’ve shared with me.
Dr. Donaldson: 12:35 Thank you so much for having me. It’s been fun.
Steve: 12:38 You bet.
Steve [Outro]: 12:41 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.