It’s OK to be wrong!

Youth development programs should support youth in creating and learning from mistakes, taking risks and even spelling words wrong!

Often the same space in which students learn academic subjects is leveraged by extracurricular programs for after school programming. However, working with youth in settings that immediately follow the school day can mean there are some unexpected barriers: rules. Typically, the carryover of rules from the classroom setting is an asset of afterschool programming that most try to capitalize on; if you can’t run around and yell during the school day, please don’t during the afterschool program. But there is also a pitfall to this rule of transferability: the rules that govern the rigorous academic process mean that youth often afraid to be “wrong.”

Current classroom learning is very dichotomous; there is a clear right answer and any remaining options are labeled as “wrong.” Although alternative approaches are gaining momentum, residual parameters remain and inhibit creative, exploratory learning. This can also inhibit youth in afterschool programs. When brainstorming ideas on flipchart paper in small groups, students can be more concerned with spelling their words correctly than sharing ideas. In making use of sketching or rapid prototyping, participants might be more concerned about making a tree right the first time rather than using the process to explore ideas. The solution? Reiterating and reinforcing that it is ok to be wrong.

Sounds easy right? Just tell youth over and over that errors are acceptable. In reality, it might take a little more effort than that. Here are some methods for making your afterschool program a safe place for learning through mistakes:

  • Meeting youth where they are. This step is critical. If you were tutoring someone in a different language, you would not expect them to be fluent the first day. Similarly, if youth are not given opportunities to make mistakes regularly, you need to start in their comfort zone and build from there. Give them a project with instructions that provides a few opportunities for choice or celebrate a change in approach.
  • Repeating the concept. Start each meeting with a statement about learning through mistakes or write a phrase on a sign like, “The best scientists make mistakes!”
  • Lower the financial cost of errors. Make sure the materials you use are fairly low cost and/or recyclable so it is clear to youth they aren’t being wasteful by experimenting with ideas.
  • Lower the social cost of errors. Encourage youth to engage in supportive feedback on projects and ask each other for ideas to improve what they have created.
  • Model “learn-by-doing” behavior. Ensuring your own efforts result in visible errors can help youth feel confident in making mistakes. Draw things you aren’t skilled at, write things on a board and star it to find correct spelling later, or test out a safe science experiment with youth during the program, instead of before the activity.

Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H Youth Development program encourages things like healthy risk taking, experimental processes and experiential learning. Not only do youth build important life-skills through this type of learning, some of the greatest discoveries, scientific advances and works of art have grown from wonderful mistakes.

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