I was teaching a year 10 science class a few years ago. I asked the students to write a short prediction (a hypothesis) about some experiment I was about to have them do.
A girl in the back looked like she was really stuck. I quietly walked over to her. She was a very sincere, bright student. She whispered, “Miss, I don’t know what to write. How should I start this? What if I’m WRONG?”
The response wasn’t being graded… wasn’t even asked to be read out loud. The hypothesis was simply for the student’s own reflection. Yet, she was so scared to write down the wrong thing. In her heart, she couldn’t bear to be wrong.
It sounds silly, but I had an epiphany in that moment is forever frozen in my memory. I suddenly realised that one of the biggest failures of modern education was that we are systematically, creating students who are scared to make mistakes. I, myself, was once one of those error-free learners… terrified of doing something the wrong way. Scared of the bad grade. Scared of feeling stupid, etc. And, it’s not just error-free learning at school that is the problem, it’s everywhere in life that kids are expected not to make mistakes.
You have to do it the right way, the first time… because… WHAT IF YOU’RE WRONG?! *gasps*
I addressed the class.
“Who’s having trouble putting together a response?”
About half the class raised their hands. Instead of hypothesis writing, we ended up having a nice big discussion about being able to accept making mistakes. I thought it was a far more productive lesson to talk about mistakes in life, than writing a hypothesis.
Fast forward a few years and now I’m homeschooling my kids. My 6 /2 year old daughter doesn’t really read. I haven’t tried to teach her either! She shows interest in reading, writing and recognising words. But, if she were in school, she would be considered very ‘behind‘.
Just for fun, I decided to look up all the theories on how to ‘teach‘ kids to read. I’m a high school teacher, so early primary education theory, is not my strong point. I googled something about teaching kids phonics. Because, you know, phonics and explicit teaching seems to be successfully at getting REALLY young kids to read and write. In one video, the speaker talked about the idea of “I do, We Do, You Do“… (Basically, I’ll show you, then you copy me).
She was rambling on, when she said, “When you do ‘I do, We Do, You Do’, you ensure ‘error free learning‘.
WOAH! Red flags went up. “Error free learning” What the hell is that? I googled it… Yup, it’s a thing. It’s an honest to goodness real thing.
I already knew about this error free teaching, but I didn’t know it was intentional or that it had a name!
You teach a kid EXACTLY what to do. You spoon feed them every step of the way, they are not supposed to make any or many mistakes. The idea is that a child will learn quicker if they don’t make mistakes, because mistakes hinder a child’s learning. And, yes, these kids learn FAST! They really do. By age 6, they’re reading books, and writing letters to their dads on father’s day. It helps make teaching a class of 25 children easier if you do it this way…
But, where does this error-free learning lead to? Does it lead to confident thinkers? Does error-free learning lead to innovative citizens of the planets who are able to think rationally and using their own judgement?
Nope. Sorry, it doesn’t. It creates those teenagers in my year 10 class, who are scared to write down the wrong answers.
Sometimes, we do try and let students make mistakes. But, this often happens when kids get much older, long past the point where children think making mistakes is sort of ok.
By then, it’s too late. By then, those students are too used to getting things done the right way, they can’t bear to be lost, confused or fumble their way through something.
Error-free learning is really a stupid thing. Life doesn’t come with a handbook. There will be endless situations that arise when you won’t have the answer. So, why are we not encouraging kids to start fumbling through their problems early on? Why are we giving them explicit instructions on how to move every step of the way, when 99% of life does not work in a predictable fail-proof fashion?
Making errors is not a problem. Errors are inevitable. The more you’re used to making mistakes (or learning from the mistakes of others), the easier you can move through life without a stifling fear of being ‘wrong‘.
Is it pleasant making mistakes? Um… not always. (And, I’m not saying you can’t help kids figure something out). But, making learning mistakes should not be something to avoid. There are invaluable lessons that come from being ‘wrong‘. Anyway, better to be get used to being wrong sometimes when you’re a wee little tot, and learn how to make it through an error, than to have no error-handling skills when you get older. Right?!