Remember, Mistakes are for Learning

It’s not easy to catch a baseball.  Ask any four-year old.  You have to keep your eyes tracking this small object hurtling at you through space, constantly separating the shape and color of the ball from other distracting colors and shapes, meanwhile, moving your hands and arms to match the ball’s arc across the sky until hand and ball hopefully meet.  It is an amazing feat, and demonstrates the way that all children learn; by making mistakes and then correcting them.

The brain, especially the child’s brain, works wonderfully in this way.  And remember the idiom, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?”  When a parent of a four-year old throws the ball without an “okay, ready?” and the ball hits a forehead or nose causing a stream of tears, the parent will learn by his or her mistake too, and change the warning before the ball is thrown.  It’s a wonderful system, each of us making our mistakes, the student learning from his or her mistake and then becoming the teacher and helping the adult learn how to be a better teacher.  Just think how far our children would get if we could stay out of the way of this amazing system.

What happens when we focus all of our energy and effort toward the goal of a single set of test scores at the end of the year, and cause our teachers to do the same by linking their income and livelihood to the end scores?

The result is that we not only sabotage the natural process of learning by mistake, but we also convince children that learning about things in life is an end point and not a process.  People who argue that “tests in real life have pass or fail consequences,” are misinterpreting the history of math, science, or any university discipline.  All of these subjects progressed and advanced because individual thinkers tried and failed, tried again and failed, and then came up with an answer.  Let’s face it, if we are interested in developing a population of educated youth who at their best are good memorizers then we should keep the current focus on assessment and testing as it is.  But if we want a population of problem solvers and thinkers, then let’s consider something different.  Maybe a different kind of test, since we need to measure accountability in our education system, but this time a test where kids are actually given points for making mistakes as long as they come up with two or three more plausible solutions, or a test where we measure how persistent a youth is in applying him or herself to a single problem rather than giving up.  These would be real tests of thinking and measures of how well our education system really disciplines the mind of our children.

If you are interested in reading further into different views on education and education reform, the following books are worth reading:

  • John Bransford, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
  • Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future