Do your students feel that it is safe to make mistakes in your classroom?
Learning to do something new inevitably involves making mistakes. In some ways it involves becoming helpless and childlike as you put yourself in an environment where you can not function with your usual level of competence. This, can be a problem for people, especially adults, who may not welcome the feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that come with a learning process.
Adult students, especially beginners, often say that they are afraid of making mistakes, they are ashamed, they apologise for their poor English. But of course they will learn more effectively if they can embrace the reality that they are not yet fluent speakers and if they feel good about making mistakes. This will always be difficult when they are interacting professionally in the real world, but the classroom at least should be a safe place where they feel safe and able to make mistakes.
The rehearsal room
I like to draw comparisons between the world of teaching and the world of theatre and entertainment. Here we can compare the classroom to a rehearsal room.
Professional theatres tend to rehearse a lot. Actors will go over their parts together again and again before they have to play in front of an audience. Indeed, the French word for a theatre rehearsal is repetition. Good directors will let this process play out and not aim to direct or correct actors too much. After all, it is during rehearsal that actors are making small adjustments and starting to feel confident about their role and how they are going to play it. The important thing to remember is that the performance does not need to be good while it is being rehearsed. It needs to be good by the time of the performance.
The classroom should play a similar role in the learning process. It is not necessary for students to be good in the classroom, they should be able to communicate or pass exams later, at the end of the course. So the question arises, what can be done to make the classroom into this safe place where people can try things out and feel comfortable with not being perfect? I am afraid that this is a question that is often not asked.
We want the classroom, as much as possible, to be a safe place. Here are some thoughts on how this can be achieved.
The teacher should not be afraid to make mistakes.
If teachers are responsible for creating an atmosphere in the classroom where students feel that it is okay to make mistakes, then the teacher themselves should not be visibly afraid of making mistakes. This means that the teachers should not be seen to be ridgedly sticking to a lesson plan, or even, I would argue, be over-prepared. This goes against the common wisdom that the more we prepare, the more professional we are. But the other side of that is the more we prepare, the more we give the impression that we are afraid, afraid of not doing a great job, or of being seen as unprofessional, This fear then becomes a part of the atmosphere in the class.