“Messing Up”

Author: Mike Fishback

Posted by Alythea

I teach at a school that requires letter grades. At the close of this past semester, while reading my seventh-grade students’ reflections, I was struck by this paragraph from a girl who was discussing her “improvement over time”:

I really hate getting letter grades. The letter grade might have been who I was at the beginning of the year, but now I have improved. When I mess one little thing up, though, it messes up my improvement over time. I think that our learning capabilities should not be based off of what letter grades we get because sometimes people make mistakes, which we learn from. Isn’t learning why we came to this school? I think my improvement over time is overall very good, but sometimes it’s hard to go steadily uphill.

I wish to use my student’s reflection not to critique the enterprise of grading (for which the literature is vast; see one recent example here) but rather to critique the conventional response to “messing up” by contrasting it with the values of critical exploration.

What my student recognizes about grading is that it relies on averaging. There is a “who I was at the beginning of the year,” and each graded task is an opportunity for a student either to “go steadily uphill” or to regress backward. “Messing up” negatively affects a student’s grade average and, in turn, the ultimate measure of how “capable” a student is perceived to be at learning.

Indeed, in a conventional classroom, a mistake is typically corrected by the teacher, who then turns that student’s mistakes into numbers for the purpose of figuring out how well the student is doing overall. This practice promotes a number of treasured values: accuracy, efficiency, and timeliness of learning chief among them.

Contrast this with an exploratory classroom, where a “mistake” is instead an opportunity for that student to realize something is wrong, to question her assumptions, and then to figure out a new approach that might make more sense, basing her newly constructed knowledge in part on her understanding of why her earlier idea didn’t work. Add collaboration to the mix, and a mistake becomes even more valuable, as it provides the group with an opportunity to assess a number of approaches in pursuit of an understanding.

My student is right that we learn from our mistakes. Yet mistakes are not simply temporary barriers to academic success. They are not simply detours interrupting a steady uphill path of knowledge acquisition. Mistakes are in fact the very things that help us learn best. By working through them, we develop a deeper understanding of a concept than if we simply accept what others think they understand about that concept. And the “light bulb moment” that occurs when we realize why and how we need to alter an idea cements that understanding more clearly and durably in our minds than if we simply are exposed to a pre-existing explanation.

Why, then, do we routinely “take points off” or “grade students down” for making mistakes, to the point where too many mistakes can sink a student’s final grade?

One way of solving the problem would be to abandon grades, scores, and rubrics altogether, but in most schools, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. So how can teachers who believe in the values of critical exploration embrace students’ mistakes while still giving grades?

One possibility is to sever the link between individual assignment grades and overall semester grades, so that the latter is no longer the average of the former. This approach would take the pressure off students who worry about making mistakes or expressing inaccurate or incomplete understandings for fear of the impact on their final grade. And it would alleviate the concern of the student I quote above, who writes about earlier mistakes dragging down her grade. Yet it would also beg the question of how that final grade would be “calculated.”

An answer to that question might be found in a second possible approach: making the process of taking advantage of mistakes part of the grade itself. This would force students’ mistakes and misunderstandings “out of the closet,” so to speak, and lay them bare as an essential part of the learning and reflection process. Depending on the subject area, this could take the form of annotated “re-do’s,” written analyses, collaborative notes, or conferences with the teacher, all completed prior to the grading. This way, grades would be as much a reflection of how students arrived at their understandings as they would be a report on how much material they have mastered.

Yet neither of these approaches addresses the issue at the core of my student’s reflection, which is that our expectation of achievement—“going steadily uphill”—can get in the way of the experience of learning. Whether we average students’ grades together or not, whether we grade how students use their mistakes or not, we are still rating them on a scale of achievement. And one thing critical exploration demonstrates is that learning is not a series of scalable achievements but rather a continuous, never-ending process of discovery that can branch out in numerous directions based on the students’ own observations and questions.

Critical exploration also honors the inquisitive potential of each learner. My student’s assertion that a grade might be “who I was at the beginning of the year” feels so disturbing to me because no letter, not an A and not an F, can reflect who a human being is. Our job as teachers, therefore, is not only to facilitate learning but also to show our learners, through their own observations of their own explorations, that they are more than just a letter.

Otherwise, we’re messing up.

Mike Fishback earned his Ed. M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2006 and currently teaches seventh grade history and English at The Potomac School in McLean, Virginia.


Great post, Mike! I love the idea of an “annotated re-do.” I like the note you end on: that we have to find significant ways to show kids (and their parents, perhaps?) that grades are only one measure of progress and potential. I’d love to read some time about ways you emphasize and applaud critical exploration in your classroom.


One question: What about a student who works hard and excels on their assignments, getting everything right the first time? Is it fair to that student if you give credit to the student in your example for figuring out her mistakes. Don’t you want to give more credit to the student who gets it correct all the time?

Mike Fishback

Lis, that’s an important point about parents. Much of the judgment-related pressure students feel likely relates to their parents’ perceptions of their “capabilities,” to use my student’s word.

And Lillian, what a fantastic question! First of all, as you can see, one of the problems with grading is that teachers feel compelled to consider how “fair” their judgments are rather than whether they really understand how each student is thinking about the subject. If the intent of grades is to send a message to each student about how he or she is doing as a learner, why must we be stymied by fairness? Fairness comes into play only if we’re using grades to rank students, to select which ones will be eligible for a limited number of opportunities, or to reward them with perks. None of these practices promote learning.

Second of all, getting things correct all the time is not the same thing as understanding things perfectly all the time. By focusing on taking advantages of “mistakes” (or rather misguided ideas), we are more likely to uncover the incomplete understandings that nevertheless may result in correct answers on assessments. And if a student really is understanding everything perfectly without any need to puzzle through the concepts and refine his or her ideas along the way, then that student needs to be encouraged to work through something more puzzling!

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