Mistakes In Education

We adults tend to fear making mistakes. We weren’t like that as children; watch any child learn to walk, or learn to ride a skateboard, shoot baseline jumpers over and over, or do just about anything that requires practice. Children keep at it, despite making mistakes repeatedly, because it’s fun. That is, the activity they’ve chosen is fun for them, and the road to mastery is also fun.

At least it’s fun until someone else tells you to do it in school, where grades are at stake. Then we quickly learn to become anxious, and we do whatever we can to avoid mistakes. For mistakes lead to the dreaded red X marks, which lead directly to poor grades. And that, we are trained to understand, must be avoided at all costs.

All this is to our collective detriment. We’ve raised a cohort of children stewing with anxiety. Besides being utterly ineffective in helping children to learn, it’s absolutely inhumane.

Consider the wise words of John Wheeler, who advised his graduate students to make as many mistakes as possible, as fast as possible. (And correct them of course.) This is the way to learn, to copy what children do naturally. Just keep doing, keep going, keep missing, and keep learning why you missed, what went wrong, and do whatever is necessary to patch things up. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it does work.

The same process is used very effectively by entrepreneurs, engineers, and other creative types. Peter Sims has written a book about this recently (I have not read it yet, but just ordered it), and of course there’s the inspiring Nike commercial (I’m not a great fan of Michael Jordan, but this one is really good). I just read a wonderful piece about the invention of ultralight human-powered flying machines by Paul MacCready (which I found out about at John D. Cook’s excellent blog, The Endeavour). MacCready solved the problem of inventing a human-powered flying machine by first solving a facilitating problem: How one could re-construct an airplane within hours rather than months. By doing this, he was able to greatly increase the frequency of his mistaken design attempts, and thereby greatly speed up the entire creative process.

We’ve got to change the way we do things in schools. Penalizing students for making mistakes, which are a normal and natural part of the learning process, is not only silly but absolutely counterproductive. By doing so we are crushing the enthusiasm and stunting the creativity of our beautiful young people, and encouraging them to pursue a soul-damaging chase after grades.

We have to do for the education system what MacCready did for his design process. We need a meta-change. Getting rid of grades and changing the way we assess students will be revolutionary, and will allow all of the other many excellent ideas for transforming the education system dreamed up and tested by many teachers out there to reach the full flower of their beauty. Once this is done, then our efforts at helping students to learn will be multiplied.

In a following post I’ll continue with my thoughts on how to assess students instead of grading them.

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About Santo D'Agostino

I have taught mathematics and physics since the mid 1980s. I have also been a textbook writer/editor since then. Currently I am working independently on a number of writing and education projects while teaching physics at my local university. I love math and physics, and love teaching and writing about them. My blog also discusses education, science, environment, etc. https://qedinsight.wordpress.com Further resources, and online tutoring, can be found at my other site http://www.qedinfinity.com
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5 Responses to Mistakes In Education

  1. hakea says:

    Hi Santo

    I’ve just been on a week-long training course for parent-child interaction therapy (pcit) which was facilitated by an American professor – Dr Cheryl McNeil. All of the pre-course information said there was going to be an assessment of the incredibly complicated coding system. Freaking out, I studied the 500 page manual.

    Well, I did not need to worry. The course was incredibly well structured with a perfectly balanced curriculum of theory, observation, and practical exercises. The instruction was high on warmth, knowledge, skill, humility, and emotional safety – we were doing assessments when we didn’t even know it. No-one felt like a failure.

    All of the students had at the least Masters degrees, some had PhD’s. Everyone said it was the best training course they had ever done.

  2. hakea says:

    It was originally developed for families physically abusing their children and as a result children with disruptive behaviours. Over decades of research, it has been used with children presenting with a variety of difficulties and adapted for use with many different cultures. It has very large effect sizes, and uses play as the method. I like this model as it treats parent and child together, so the child is not singled out as the problem. Average families can use the techniques with a little instruction to improve the relationship with their children. I’ll be teaching the techniques to a group of parents this week in a play workshop that I have put together.

  3. Cold says:

    Good Day Sir, I am a math teacher from Singapore and was wondering if I have the honor of inviting you to guest post at my website? I can reached at whitecorp@hotmail.com for discussion. Thanks and God bless.

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