Penicillin, super glue, Velcro, matches, Flubber—what do these have in common? They were all inventions that were made by mistake (okay, so that last one isn’t exactly true, but you get the gist). Though we may aspire to be perfectionists (guilty as charged), in reality, no one’s perfect and mistakes will always be a part of life. They also play an important role in the learning process. Recent studies show that students actually learn and retain information better when they make errors along the way.
As a troop leader, you can help set the tone of your troop meetings and remind girls that it’s okay to mess up. Girls who know that they can try, fail, and try again with no repercussions (and with plenty of support from their troop and trusted adult) are more inclined to try new things and persevere when the going gets tough. Read on for three strategies to create a “mistake-friendly” troop culture.
Reframe how we see mistakes
In life, we don’t have all the answers figured out. We learn as we go and it’s no different for young girls. Stanford researcher and professor Carol Dweck, who’s probably most famous for her work on growth mindset, gave a TED Talk a few years ago about the power of the phrase “not yet.” She states, “If you get a failing grade, you think, ‘I’m nothing, I’m nowhere.’ But if you get the grade Not Yet, you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.”
Use this framework when you’re interacting with your girls. Maybe your troop is trying to program their robot and it’s not going the way they planned. They’re frustrated and ready to give up. You can say, “It seems like those first few attempts didn’t work out. But you’re getting there. What did you try already? What could you try next?”
Afterward, you can regroup and review the activity. Ask, “What happened during those first tries? What did your mistakes teach you?” Hands-on experience is just one crux of learning by doing—reflection is the other key piece. Discussing what went wrong and how that led to what went right not only normalizes inevitable stumbles but also gives meaning to those mistakes beyond the usual feelings of embarrassment or shame that might arise from getting something wrong.
Praise (but be specific!)
Your girls did it—after much tinkering, they got their robot to work! Our first inclination might be to give out a round of high-fives and shout, “Great job!” While this feels good to say, we inadvertently end up praising results rather than process, whether or not that’s our intent. We can tweak our language and offer more specific praise that celebrates effort and determination. Try, “You were having a hard time, in the beginning, figuring out how to make the robot follow your commands. Even though it was difficult, you kept trying different things and didn’t give up. You should be proud of yourselves!”
Be a super role model
Girls are always watching us to see if what we say is true and important. If we tell girls it’s okay to make mistakes, but then panic and show no compassion to ourselves when we take a wrong turn, they’ll either: a.) call us out for our hypocrisy or b.) disregard our well-meaning advice. So, the next time you take a literal or figurative wrong turn, remember to model how you process your mistake. Try, “Well, that didn’t go the way I hoped. Let me try something different and see if that works instead.”
Our most recently rolled-out STEM Journeys are called “Think Like A…” for a reason. It’s not just getting the right answer, but the process of learning how to tinker, explore, and figure things out (while making mistakes along the way) that will prepare girls for a future of problem-solving and persisting. I’ll leave you with the words of the late, great (and fellow Girl Scout) Mary Tyler Moore: “Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave.”
Lily Yu – Lily is a Program Resource Specialist at River Valleys. She earned her BA in comparative literature and Japanese from Hamilton College and has a background in publishing and advertising. Though she wasn’t a Girl Scout growing up, Lily is making up for lost time by leading her daughter’s Daisy troop (who’s more excited to work on petals and Journeys—it could go either way!). In her free time, she enjoys going for long walks, reading, and spending time with her family.