In my opinion, students are being beaten down by the current era of high-stakes, standardized testing. From third grade (at least in Texas when students start taking the STAAR test), the only thing that matters to a student (and their teacher, administrator and, most horrific, sometimes their parents) is how many questions on a single multiple choice test they get correct. No partial credit for maybe having a good process and making a silly error. No encouragement to learn from those mistakes because those tests (and the student’s specific answers) are not released until at least the beginning of the next school year…if ever. Education policy makers and politicians say these tests measure if the student learned the standards through the year. Unfortunately, how well a student does rarely reflects any real application of learning. Rather it reflects how well the student has been trained to answers certain kinds of questions.
I once had two students come for some tutoring after school. As I was doing an example on the board I would ask each of them what step I should do next…I was sort of their parrot. I wouldn’t write anything until they told me what to do. At one step, they were both silent, just staring. I said, if you’re not sure, tell me what you think. And I also said, ‘don’t be afraid to be wrong.’ I could tell one kid wanted to say something, so I encouraged him. But over and over he just wouldn’t put himself out there. After a few minutes (literally…’wait time is essential’, as the saying goes), I finally wrote the next step on the board. As I finished writing, I heard the kid say something like, ‘seriously?!’ This is the conversation that ensued:
Me (turning around to face him): What’s the matter?
Student: That’s what I was thinking
Me: Then why didn’t you say it?
Student: I didn’t think it was right
Me: Didn’t I just say ‘don’t be afraid to be wrong’?
Student: Yeah, but….
I think this student is a microcosm of a vast majority of students in our public school system. They have been indoctrinated that a right answer is good and the wrong answer is bad. Period. That is borderline sinful. Education and learning is very seldom about a right answer…especially in the beginning stages of learning a concept…and much more about the absorption of a process. If a kid is solving a multi-step equation and makes a silly error of adding 2 and 2 and getting 7, but they have shown their work and it is clear their process is solid I will give them almost full credit. Even if another kid is totally in left field, I can virtually guarantee there will be something that I can build on from whatever process they do show. Less about what is wrong and more about what is right.
Great inventions and leaps of knowledge have never happened without a rash of failures first. We need to encourage our kids to look at a problem (or a reading passage, or a historical event, or a scientific discovery) and try something. Punishing a student for a wrong answer only stifles creativity and any destroys any desire to attempt something that might look too difficult.
That has to end.