I screw things up all the time. I’ve written a number of books and some of them were entirely ignored. My first version of my website was so bad that it literally made people dizzy to look at it. I sneeze when I see people getting married on the beach and I once farted so loud at a restaurant that a little kid across the room pointed and said “That man tooted.”
Fortunately for me, you screw up all the time, too. And so does your mother. And so does your great uncle. If there’s one thing that all of us have hopefully learned, it’s that we are continually making mistakes and there’s nothing we can do about it.
According to this article in Scientific American, this is one of the main reasons that people don’t go into science. Young kids may enjoy looking at Bill Nye videos and look forward to the latest technological marvel from Elon Musk and Apple Computer, but once they get into school, they frequently learn to despise science. How? By failing at it.
This problem is understandable when you go back to the italicized idea above. Nobody wants to waste their time doing things the wrong way. Nobody likes to feel confused and bewildered by the things around them. Nobody wants to feel stupid. Unfortunately, science is one of those areas in life where you’re almost guaranteed to make gigantic mistakes on a regular basis.
So, given that people continually screw things up and that nobody likes to feel stupid, how can we get people to go into science? The answer: Embrace the suck.
For some reason, our students have gotten the idea that anything less than perfection is terrible and that making mistakes is a crime. As science teachers, it’s our job to show them that this isn’t the case. Not only is it not stupid to make mistakes, but it’s how we figure out what we’re doing. The entire scientific method is built around the idea that we’ll make bad guesses about the world and slowly but surely make them better. Rather than feeling bad about our mistakes, we should embrace them as part of the learning process.
How do we teach our students how to screw up? By making them screw up, of course. We need to give our students lab activities that are challenging enough that they sometimes won’t be able to come up with the right answer. And when our students miss the point of what they’re doing, we need to tell them that it’s fine to make mistakes and that they’re not idiots for having done so.
I give a lecture each year that I call the “You are an idiot” talk. I don’t do this because I actually think my students are idiots, or because I want them to feel dumb. Instead, the message is just what I’ve written here: That scientists screw up all the time and that’s it’s totally OK to make mistakes. For a scientists, making mistakes is not a big deal. Failure to learn from mistakes, on the other hand, is.
Teaching our students to screw up is one of the best things we can do. If we can get our students to understand that making mistakes is inevitable and that nobody can avoid it, they’ll stop feeling bad when they make mistakes. And when they stop feeling bad about making mistakes, they’ll be better able to move on from them.