To Err is Human
He sits across the table from me and I watch him work, with guarded eyes. His pencil is poised above the worksheet, his brow furrowed, unwilling to take the risk of a misspelled word, of an incorrect answer, of the penalty of getting it wrong. He sighs and finally makes a mark in the blank space. He looks up and directs his glance toward the teacher. Danger lurks in having his paper returned with a bunch of red slashes, signaling once again his inadequacy.
What is education for, if not to point out children’s deficiencies, and correct them? Isn’t that what teachers do, in fact, what they are paid to do? Surely marking and grading children’s work – oral and written, is one of the professional tasks assigned to teachers. Not to fulfill this obligation is remiss; we can’t have children taking work home that has not been thoroughly examined, inspected, and evaluated, their errors pointed out in bold typeface in the margins of their work.
Never mind that children are humbled by confronting their mistakes. Never mind that their spirits are crushed and that their egos diminished. Never mind that they learn to be fearful of trying – for fear of being wrong. For that is surely the price that is paid for such judgments, despite teachers’ best intentions. Although we have proclaimed many times over – “to err is human” – and “we learn from our mistakes” – there are, nonetheless, penalties for errors that leave scars that sometimes last a lifetime.
Curiously, we have come to regard the absence of error in a student’s school performance as the sine qua non of excellence. Classroom practice seems to put major emphasis on “rights and wrongs,” as if this kind of knowing is at the very heart of what is important in learning. Virtually all evaluation and grading, the hallmark of a student’s accomplishment, represents a tallying up of the extent to which that student “knows,” or has performed correctly or incorrectly.
Yet, error is a natural condition of just about everything we do in our lives. We take the wrong turn off the highway; we put two tablespoons of baking soda into the cake instead of two teaspoons; we forget to feed the cat before leaving for work; we enter a withdrawal incorrectly in the checkbook; the postperson delivers the mail to the wrong address; we dial the wrong number on the telephone; we spell concomitant incorrectly in a manuscript submitted for publication; we bring the wrong documents to the accountant; we forget our passport when crossing the border. Such errors are made every day of our adult lives, and while they are, at the very least, irksome, and, at worst, needing our urgent corrective attention, we do not measure our daily functioning by how many errors we have made, nor by how many tasks we have gotten “right.”
A much more important criterion by which we assess competent adult functioning is our capacity for making an error and bouncing back to try again. To learn to accept our blundering, our fallibility as part of our human-ness; to learn to accept error as the mode of learning; to learn to use error to drive us forward to new understandings; to learn to keep our courage, our faith in ourselves, our ability to keep trying – these are the indicators that distinguish us as successful adults. This is, of course, how we wish to empower children.
We cannot empower children with practices that are rooted in punishment for errors, for such practices give the very opposite results. Instead of empowering them, we make them afraid to try, afraid to take risks, for fear that they will be wrong. Think of how each of us as adults would feel if a teacher were assigned to watch our every movement, monitoring what we did, assessing what was right and what was wrong, then completing a grading sheet with a tally mark highlighting our errors. Think of how we would feel at the end of that day, at the end of a week, at the end of a year! If we never made another move, if we became paralyzed in our efforts to perform our daily duties, it would be understandable. If this is an adult response, think of the toll such actions have on a child’s infinitely more fragile sense of self.
Valuing error as a mode of learning, instead of giving penalties for errors, runs counter to virtually all classroom practice. Yet, surely a teacher’s role must include helping the child to grow in certain skills where deficits and weaknesses are perceived. Can this diagnosis and feedback occur outside of a “right and wrong” framework? What if teachers examined students’ spelling or arithmetic papers and, instead of marking the errors in red, wrote comments such as:
Hey, Ella; I’m wondering about the way you spelled the word rabit (rabbit) and chiken (chicken). As you look at the differences in the spellings, I wonder what observations you can make?
Dear Jesse: I studied those examples you did where you multiplied with two digit numbers and I see some interesting patterns in your procedure that may be contributing to those wrong answers. Here’s your pattern and here’s another way. Can you observe some differences? Let me know what you see.
Is this too much to ask of teachers – to put aside their modus operandi of giving elevated status to right answers, and instead creating in their classrooms a learning laboratory in which error is examined clinically, critically and wisely, without the emotional baggage of negative judgment? Can we ask teachers to create classrooms in which searching to find out is truly valued and children are helped to learn from error?