Errors, Correction and Emotional Safety

Even though I have little use for multiple-choice tests in the classroom, I have been forced to use them from time to time. (Maybe I’ll talk about that pressure another day.) If you’ve administered a test with multiple choice items, pay close attention to the dynamics of student attitude toward their work. When you go over the items with your students, you will encounter a lottery mentality in the majority (indeed, likely 100%) of students.

Lotto 6/49

By this I mean that students will be reasonably indifferent to the questions they answered correctly, as well as the questions that they simply didn’t know how to answer. But for the lucky guesses, they will pump their fists in the air, proclaim their wonderful luck and gloat with their friends. It’s a saddening display—you have allowed assessment to be a lottery rather than a means of communicating both to you and your students what they have learned.

The lottery mentality is psychologically safe. Sure you are confessing that you didn’t know something; but you are compensated by being a winner. This, I believe, is a serious impediment to learning. What we need is to create conditions under which not knowing is not shameful, knowing is not a matter of winning a contest, and lucky guessing is understood as being of no importance. The goal is to make students understand that they know what they know and that they are learning new things (always) and that everyone in the room is in the same situation. And it’s OK.

So let’s begin with the obvious. Never embarrass a student. I’m sad that I had to say that. But I do, so I’ll say it again. Never embarrass a student. If you want me to explain why, we’ve got a very big problem.

Second, never treat mistakes as evidence that the student is incapable, lazy, didn’t do his/her work, or anything morally judgmental. Mistakes are not moral failings; they are learning and performance errors and they are correctable. And that’s what the teacher is getting paid for.

But more to the point, I want to reflect on two opposing views of acknowledging student work. A very contemporary point of view is that student work should always be honoured, and that the student who created the work should be acknowledge and treated respectfully throughout.

So far so good. But let’s look at this in action. Suppose Sally presents a solution to a math problem. Her solution is written on the board and it acknowledged with a bright sticky note that says “Sally’s Solution” on it (and yes, this is frequently done). I like this so far, but there is a nagging concern I can’t quite shake. I’m happy to celebrate Sally’s work, but critiquing it has suddenly become problematic. You see, once the identification is made so strongly, now we (the class) are not talking about mathematics; we’re talking about Sally’s mathematics. And once we begin talking about Sally’s mathematics, all sorts of social norms come into play. Nice people don’t criticize each other in public. Sally’s feelings are suddenly attached to her solution. Most of us will want to tip-toe a bit.

Now, I don’t think that this is an impossible problem. In fact, I know a number of teachers who do this kind of thing regularly. But I do think that it’s riskier than need be, and I believe that this level of ownership of work is a potential barrier to learning. Let’s look at another way of dealing with Sally’s solution.

First, a bit of backstory. I became aware of this issue shortly after the 1995 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) examinations. Researchers videotaped mathematics lessons from participating countries to see what kinds of methods, attitudes, relationships, etc. they could discern. A striking feature of the Japanese lessons was that students were completely comfortable with letting go of their work when it went public. Sally’s solution, as soon as it went on the board, stopped being Sally’s solution. It simply became lines of mathematics. It was inert, lifeless; it had no connection to a human being. Students addressed the content of the solution without ever making reference to the author. This was true of the author too. What this did was provide an open non-threatening forum for discussion. The solution was a solution, no more and no less. The question for the class was whether the solution was satisfactory. Together they critiqued the reasoning and the presentation and were able to make suggestions for improvement. All without anyone praising or attacking Sally.

Like much in education, there is room for choice here. Not only that, there is no reason to do things always one way and never the other. But I do think that it’s an important practical matter for teachers to create an environment where the point of student work is not to praise or to insult the student. The point of student work is that it helps students—all of them—to understand what they know, and to develop the skill and confidence to increase in proficiency and sophistication. Ironically, there is good reason to believe that students will be able to take better care of their own work if they learn how to let go of it.

I conclude with a video of an 8th grade math lesson in Japan. You will see that it diverges a bit from what I wrote. But the most important thing I want you to notice is the lack of investment in each student’s solution. The work is just the work; it isn’t personal, even though students are named and associated with their suggestions.

And on a final mathematical note, I love the student who asks is the problem is solvable. Now THAT is a great question!

(I do not believe that the TIMSS videos can be embedded. Sorry.)


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