Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Importance of Making Mistakes

The vile video of Success Academy teacher, Charlotte Dial, berating a first grader for making a mistake on her math paper, reminds me of something I have been saying to teachers for years. "Value student errors, because those errors are our best window into what a child does not know and, therefore, they tell us what we need to teach next." Because we teachers are human we sometimes fall into the trap of bemoaning student errors. We think, "Gee whiz, I just taught that, but they still didn't get it. What is wrong with them?" The truth is, though, that there is a gap between what is taught and what is learned and student errors give us the information we need to reteach or teach in a different way to fill that gap. I often joke that we should all be grateful that students make errors, since if they got everything right we would be out of a job.

My favorite story about student mistakes comes from my time in the early 1970s when I was teaching geography to 7th graders. This was during the time that the former East Pakistan had won its independence and renamed itself Bangladesh. After a unit on South Asia, instruction in the historical, political, social and religious importance of the region and considerable map study, I gave the students a test. On the test I asked a fill-in-the-blank question, "The former East Pakistan has recently won its independence and been renamed __________." One student, no doubt struggling with the difficult pronunciation and spelling of Bangladesh, answered -- "Balderdash!" I gave full credit for the answer because it was a good effort and because it gave me a great story to tell in the teacher's lounge.

The distinguished literacy researcher and theorist, Ken Goodman, helped change my thinking about student errors. Goodman uses the term "miscue" to describe what happens when a child makes an error in reading. If you have ever played any pool, you will find the description apt. More often than I would like to admit, I miss the center of the cue ball with my cue stick and the ball goes skittering away in a direction I did not intend. On the next shot, I make a slight adjustment and try again, usually with better results. And so it is in reading, when faced with a challenging word, children take their best shot and if they "miscue", we try to help them make adjustments.

Importantly, as we listen to children read, it is not all the words they decode accurately that give us information about their reading, it is the miscues. If a student reads "house" for "apartment", we know that the student is reading to make sense and has simply substituted one type of dwelling for another. This is a "high level" miscue and may not need our intervention. On the other hand if the child reads "money" for "monkey", the miscue would tell us that the student is not reading for meaning and not looking effectively at all the components of the word. This is a more concerning miscue and may help us to determine some next steps in reading instruction.

I think it is useful to think of all student mistakes as "miscues." Most mistakes contain an element of understanding and misunderstanding in them. As we look for ways to help the student clarify and correct, we need to use the part of the error that shows some understanding to correct the misunderstanding. For example, in writing, if a student attempts parallel structure, but provides a faulty execution, we can celebrate that the writer has learned that parallel structure is a powerful tool for the writer and also help the writer refine the use of parallel structure.

Learning is a risky business. If we help students understand that errors are valuable and provide opportunities for continued learning, they are more likely to take risks. If we constantly bemoan errors, children will be less likely to take those risks that lead to learning. Certainly the children in Ms. Dial's Success Academy classroom are unlikely to take any risks.

In the 1990s, I was working in an elementary school as a reading specialist. I will never forget one struggling 2nd grade reader, Danielle,  who was having a terrible time with reading. Slowly, through her hard work and persistence, she improved. At Christmas time she handed me a handmade card with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on the front. Inside it read, "Dear Mr. Walsh, Thank you for hleping me rede. Love, Danielle." Best Christmas card I ever got. It also gave me some useful information on a new teaching target for Danielle -- spelling.