It’s a talented instructor who can turn student mistakes into valuable teachable opportunities.
By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT
This fall we are discussing strategies to build your classroom culture. In these columns you will find ideas for setting a tone that encourages learning and professionalism. Other articles will promote cooperation and teamwork. Some will focus on striving for excellence. And, other columns will honor a commitment to quality ingredients, food safety and security. This month’s discussion focuses on encouraging and praising mistakes and using them as teaching opportunities.
Value of Mistakes
In educational programs, there are many valid reasons to encourage students to take on complex projects that stretch their skills and expand their knowledge. The challenges help them grow and develop. If students are just playing it safe – and many do – then they are not likely to learn as much or expand their skills. While playing it safe may help new students with basic tasks and it typically guarantees food safety, it does not help them grow into their full potential.
The value of learning how to recover from mistakes is a reason to encourage missteps in a classroom or broader educational setting – such as an internship, coop placement or practical context. If you never break a hollandaise, you never learn how to fix it. If you don’t forget the salt or another key ingredient when baking bread or making pastries, then you will not remember the importance of salt. If you serve the wrong wine, you will never recognize the importance of bin numbers.
Mistakes also change the way we look at ourselves. When we make mistakes or when students make mistakes, a certain amount of humility is learned about a person’s skills and abilities. They learn to make peace with making errors. It is a valuable lesson not to be chosen for a team or lose in a competition and learn how to pick oneself up and keep going. In a way, we help students learn this lesson when we conduct a critique of the products they create or the service they deliver in a dining room. They also learn they are not performing life threatening heart surgery- they are making food and mistakes are not the end of the world.
Mistakes can also help you learn tolerance and compassion for others who make mistakes. If you have been perfect all your life, it is hard to sympathize with someone who made a mistake in preparing the food.
Responding to Mistakes
To build a culture of encouraging and celebrating mistakes in your classroom, it is important to consider how you respond to mistakes. There are several options, and they vary in usefulness depending on the individual who made the mistake and the depth of the mistake.
First, you can ignore the mistake. By not drawing attention to it, you don’t embarrass the student and you give him or her an opportunity to find a way to recover from the mistake and proceed with the next steps.
Second, you can recognize the mistake and help the student see the mistake – especially if it is early in the process of food preparation – and then help him or her decide what to do next and why. This strategy focuses on helping the individual learn to recognize a mistake in the process and consider its impact on the rest of the food production or dining room operation. It also gives you a chance to provide either spontaneous mentoring or a brief lecturette on something the student may have never learned or forgotten.
A third response includes inviting the team that made the error – or the whole class, depending on the situation – to stop and notice the mistake and discuss, as a group, what to do next and how to recover. The value of this strategy is that you indicate mistakes are normal and happen all the time; the real professional skill is deciding what to do and how to recover from a mistake. You also inadvertently teach the value of moving forward rather than feeling shame or placing blame.
All these strategies focus on identifying mistakes and using them as learning moments and recognizing the difference between minor mistakes and major ones. Some can easily be fixed while others have more serious consequences. You play a critical role in pointing out to students that they themselves are not mistakes. You help them to understand that although they made a mistake in behavior, they are still talented young professionals who can learn and keep moving forward. In fact, in an individual conversation or a group discussion, you can point out the gift of making the mistakes since they provide powerful learning moments and build skills. You can compliment the student for making an error (provided it is not egregious). You might even bring up a situation from your background when you made a mistake and how you learned many lessons from the situation.
Now you can approach mistakes as teaching opportunities and consider yourself lucky when your students make mistakes in class if they can be remedied relatively easily. Try any one of these strategies and decide which ones – or your own method – work best for you in your teaching context.
Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide.