Thoughts on Feedback and Mistakes in the Classroom

The Maze
cc licensed flickr photo by Dark Sevier:

I recently had the opportunity to attend a week long Quantum Learning training.  At the training we did a team building exercise know simply as “The Maze.”  While you can read more about one version of this exercise here, I will try to give you a short synopsis.  This exercise prompted a great deal of thought by everyone present at the training.

The Maze is a grid on which a team must discover the correct path from one end to the other.  Until the correct route is discovered, only one person may be in the Maze at a time.  If they step on an incorrect square while trying to discover the path, they get “beep” from the Maze Master (who has a sheet with the correct path).  They must then retrace their steps exactly to exit the Maze.  Team members can get penalties for touching the Maze out of turn, touching people in the Maze, using props, speaking and a few other things.  They cannot ask the Maze Master any questions and the Maze Master may only give feedback in the form of a “beep” (when team members step on the wrong square) and a “buzz” when the team invokes a penalty.  We had three teams attempting the Maze at once, the first one to finish wins (though all teams needed to finish the Maze).  It took us around 45 minutes to complete the exercise.

This was one of those experiences where the frustration was palpable in the room.  This was not an easy task.  My role in the exercise was that of a Maze Master.  My job was to be completely deadpan the entire time, only speaking to give “beeps” and “buzzes” (with a short description of the buzz offense).  The presenter told us before we began that that Maze Masters had the hardest job.  I would have to agree with her that it was fairly difficult.  I had all the answers, but I had to sit and allow the team members to make mistake after mistake after mistake with virtually no reaction from myself.  The team was clearly frustrated at points in the exercise and often their anger pointed towards me.  After all, I was the one who kept telling them they were wrong and they had to restart their path.  They had questions that I desperately wanted to answer.  However, I was not allowed to say anything other than the scripted beeps and buzzes.  The basic idea is that the team represents the students in a class while the Maze Master is a representation of the teacher.

I learned a lot from the Maze, I know I will be thinking about it for some time.  Here are three of the lessons that I have been thinking about the most since completing the exercise.




I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately but this activity put those thoughts into overdrive.  As the Maze Master I had to sit and watch as team members made lots of mistakes.  It was especially tough when they repeated some of the same mistakes.  As teachers, how willing are we to allow our students to make mistakes in order to succeed?

I have always tried to be supportive of my students when they make mistakes, helping them to learn where to go next.  But I realized that I might not be so good at knowingly watching them “step into the wrong square.”  There is a difference between problem solving when things don’t go right and purposely allowing students to make the wrong choices.  It is hard to stand and watch them make mistakes and not stop them before it happens.  We naturally want to keep them safe and save them the pain.  However, as my friend Katy put it, “true learning doesn’t come without frustration.” So now instead of just telling my students it’s ok to make mistakes because that’s how we learn, I need to be better at allowing those mistakes to be made.  I have a lot of processing to do on this issue.



As the Maze Master I had a lot of things that needed my attention.  In addition to making sure people were on the correct square, I had to pay attention to make sure everyone was standing in the right place, that they didn’t touch the people in the Maze or the Maze itself, that they weren’t talking, that they retraced their steps correctly when they got a beep, that everyone was taking their correct turn, etc.  It wasn’t easy to keep track of it all.

My take away on this aspect of the challenge was reinforcement that as teachers we can’t effectively focus on everything all the time.  We can give much better feedback when we focus on one or two things at a time instead of trying to do it all.  We should also allow our students a specified focus.  The best example I’ve seen with this involves writing.  When teaching writing skills, it is hard for us and the students when we tell them everything has to be perfect.  It is ok to focus on and grade just mechanics or just organization on a particular assignment.  It is not to say that we throw away all the other good things about writing, but that we intensely focus on those elements in order to help our students improve.


Course Correction

Course Correction
cc licensed flickr photo by alicepopkorn:


During the exercise, I made a mistake as the Maze Master.  I buzzed the group when I shouldn’t have and things got confused.  The group tried to ask questions and the facilitator came to remind me that I couldn’t deviate from the script.  I couldn’t tell them I made a mistake and fix it.  I had to keep buzzing them for being in the wrong place.  I panicked a bit because I knew they were frustrated and I wanted to fix my mistake.

What I wish I would have done is said “pause” (which we were allowed to do) so I could take the time to look at the Maze, figure out what had just happened and then respond appropriately.  While I do make a conscious effort to analyze my mistakes as a teacher, I would like to be better at it.  I would like to be able to say “pause,” evaluate the situation, and then respond appropriately.  Some of the best reflective conversations I’ve had about my teaching have been with my students.  I would like to “pause” with them more often to evaluate and decide if there is a better path for us to follow.

While there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from the Maze exercise, these are the three that have been on my mind the most.  I have particularly been thinking a great deal about failure in terms of how we assess and assign grades.  I would love to hear your thoughts on any of these issues.


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