If you're like most people, you prefer to avoid mistakes in your daily work. They can be embarrassing, perhaps even career threatening. Not so with very young children. They don't differentiate between success and failure at first. It's all just experimentation in their eyes. As children age, the stakes rise in their education, as do peer and parental expectations, and children more often than not look for ways to avoid failure in their educational settings. What happened between those newborn years and, say, adolescence? Where did that fearlessness go?
Needless to say, the answer is complex, but one thing is certain: a secret to constructing confident children who enjoy seeing the results of their efforts and experimentation is to create schools where failure is wiped from their vocabulary. Instead, it can be known as merely cause and effect.
An article this summer from northern California's KQED cited some fascinating evidence. "Classic studies by psychologists James Stigler of UCLA and the late Harold Stevenson, detailed in their 1994 book The Learning Gap, compared videotaped lessons in eighth-grade math in several countries. They found that American teachers emphasized specific procedures for solving problems, largely ignored errors and praised correct answers. Japanese teachers, by contrast, asked students to find their own way through problems and then led a discussion of common errors, why they might seem plausible and why they were wrong. Praise was rarely given and students were meant to see struggle and setbacks as part of learning. The difference, the authors believed, is one reason that Japanese students outperform Americans in math."
What happens when we change the game here in the United States? Over the last two years, a New York City public school affiliated with Columbia University has been experimenting with new ways for children to learn algebra. The author of the KQED article summarized a participating teacher's reaction. "And in keeping with a growth mindset, students began to see errors as a path to learning rather than humiliation. When he shared students’ errors anonymously with the class, he says, 'the kids got really good about saying, ‘Hey, that’s my mistake! Let me talk about what I did wrong.’ It was incredible." Equally remarkable were the test results of the New York experiment, with a 100% pass rate for the Common Core aligned algebra test.
Of course, in Montessori education standardized tests are anathema to the way Dr. Maria Montessori envisioned children learning. But she would applaud the efforts in New York, or anywhere for that matter, where children are given an opportunity to self-correct. In 2017, in these days of social media generated toxicity, the cultural landscape seems like a dangerous place for children to navigate and feel good about themselves. But if schools and homes can create a culture of intelligent experimentation, filled with lofty goals for which children are encouraged to reach, a few bumps along the byway won't be of any consequence to our students. They will just continue traveling serenely on, toward whatever destiny awaits them.