When I started working in academia I dreaded the idea that I might make a mistake in the classroom. After all those years of immersing myself in my subject this seemed to me to be the ultimate nightmare – one to be avoided at all costs. There could be no room for mistakes, I thought, or else my tenuous grip on authority would be lost.
But I did make mistakes, of course. Not all the time. And it’s possible that I was the only one who really noticed. But it took me a long time to realise that making the occasional mistake, even in the classroom, is part of the process of learning, and that I could use my mistake to teach my students something valuable about knowledge and how best to learn.
The terrible moment
Let’s accept, for a moment, that you and I and everyone else are, in fact, only human. Maybe you show an incorrect formula on powerpoint, get a date wrong, lose your track mid-argument, forget a word, blush, mutter under your breath, or even, horror of all horrors – get corrected by a student – what then?
The first thing to consider is your immediate response.
It’s natural to want to brush over it and pretend it never happened. However, your students will understand that this is what has happened, and will not think the better of you for it. Experience suggests that it is far, far better to address the problem directly, then and there.
Firstly, be clear about what has happened. If someone else has pointed out your error, thank them, be polite, and acknowledge that they are correct. And if you can’t work out how to correct your error immediately, for whatever reason, say so, and promise to return to it when you next meet. Keep that promise.
It sometimes helps to use some humour at these points. In addition, you could ask your audience for help. You could say, for instance, that this is an area that you have always found challenging yourself, and that perhaps their task for the following week (and yours) could be to summarise it to the group and discuss its difficulties.
Secondly, after the event, assess the nature of your mistake. Was it an error about a fundamental aspect of the material, or was it incidental? Was it just a lapse, or does it show a serious gap in your knowledge (indeed, is it part of a pattern of errors?).
Answering these questions will help you to decide what action to take about it. If it is incidental (e.g. the result of fatigue), consider whether you are able to re-balance your workload to enable you to refresh yourself before teaching. If the error is more serious, take some time to think about how to redress any gaps in your knowledge.
Remember, though, it can take several years to really establish ‘finger-tip’ knowledge in a given subject, and the process of articulating that subject through teaching is often crucial to acquiring that level of expertise.
So, yes, work hard. Be diligent. But don’t torment yourself if things don’t come as easily as you would like. Remember: the expertise you see around you in senior colleagues is often the result of years or even decades of immersion in a subject – and learning never stops.
But what sort of message am I sending out about expertise if I make a mistake?
Expertise is not total knowledge. As you know from your research – where being wrong is an essential part of the process in which you test your hypotheses against facts or ideas, – knowledge is a negotiated terrain. No one ever possesses all of it or masters it wholly and without exception. Now consider whether this is also true of teaching.
By responding well to mistakes of your own making, you model a way of learning for your students. Your response will give them room to hypothesise, explore, trip up, make mistakes, and carry on. Your response can show them that even experts can get things wrong, can acknowledge their error with grace and good humour, and can use that moment to improve their knowledge even more.