Learning from mistakes

How pleasant to read a  comment on education that I can 100% agree with – that children should be allowed to take risks, make mistakes and enjoy their childhood.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22338343

It’s something that a huge number of people would say they agree with, I think.  I know we have a focus  in school on encouraging pupils to take more risks and be more adventurous, and so do many others. So why isn’t it happening?

Partly, I suspect, because many adults who claim to embrace this philosophy don’t really accept the consequences of it. They always imagine the children taking risks – and them being successful. They aren’t, when it comes down to it, prepared to accept that one consequence of risk-taking may well be that it does go wrong sometimes – and that could lead to anything from a broken arm  to a broken heart to a broken dream.  And even for a teacher,  it is very hard to stand back and let a child make what you believe will be a bad decision with even minor consequences – it must be much harder for parents.

But that does not mean we should not try. That means both teachers and parents accepting that children will sometimes be upset. For example, if young Sally risked trying out for the school play and didn’t get in – OK, she is disappointed. Both parents and teachers need to be reasonably sympathetic, but not too much – they should not collude with her in thinking it is the end of the world, whilst still acknowledging the disappointment. We want Sally to become someone who copes with not getting everything she wants, and doesn’t collapse in a heap at the slightest setback, or expect Mummy or Miss to sort things out for her whenever they go wrong. So – what really mustn’t happen is for Mummy or Miss to try to prevail upon the organiser of said play to take the little darling on in some role or other just because “she was terribly upset”. Likewise when little Johnny doesn’t get in the football team.  And likewise when Becky does not get that Oxford place she applied for. The children will be upset – but you (the teacher or the parent) are the adult here – you do not get upset alongside them,  or try to make it all go away – you help them deal with disappointment, and ensure it doesn’t stop them attempting things in the future.

Similarly we must encourage children, as they grow up, to take ownership of their actions and the consequences of them rather than trying to blame others or make excuses. I never cease to be amazed by the number of children who think I will be better pleased by their saying “I didn’t know it had to be in today” rather than “I’m really sorry, I forgot to do it” – even some 18 year olds are prone to the former – and even when the item that had to be in had the relevant date written on it…

It is also incumbent on us to employ our critical faculties when listening to a child’s account of things. It really alarms me how many parents, and even teachers, will uncritically accept it when a child says “I couldn’t do that exam question because Mrs X didn’t teach us that” or “Mr Y always picks on me”. We should all be aware of the possible other interpretation “I forgot to revise that bit” or “I was away when that was covered and didn’t copy up” for the first case, “Mr Y had a go at me today when I was playing up in his lesson” or “I think Mr Y is going to be nasty about me at parents’ evening so I want to get in first” for the second case.    Of course I am not saying children always lie – there do exist teachers who forget to teach particular sections or even who pick on a child.  But it is more common for a child to say such things than for them to be true; children don’t always tell the truth – I know I didn’t.   We need somehow to strike a balance between encouraging children to care, in the right way, about academic success and about pleasing their teacher, but still able to accept that sometimes they haven’t done these things, but the world won’t fall apart and it’s in their power to do something about it. We all make mistakes, we’re all less than perfect – finding ways to deal with this early on should be a priority. And as teachers and parents, we should be modelling this behaviour to the children, and admitting if we’ve messed up, with the expectation that we will move on and sort it out.

I am not saying it’s easy to strike a balance – it most certainly isn’t.   I think when I was at school, there was probably too much of the toughness (as illustrated by the comment my old Headmistress made to one of my classmates: “Failed O-level mocks in Physics and Biology? Well, you’d better forget university”) but now we are generally too much the other way.

The perpetual monitoring and frequent reporting in schools also militates against opportunities to experiment and make mistakes. If you know that a progress report or grade is going to be sent home every half term, or you are continually being assessed (or being obliged to assess yourself) to see whether you’ve increased the required 0.2 levels in the last month, then are you going to risk writing a more adventurous essay in English that you are less sure of? Or will you tackle the tougher questions instead of the easier ones in maths? Not if you’re an anxious, conscientious pupil you won’t. And if you are a bit lazy sometimes, and not always quite performing at the level your ability would warrant, then the fact that someone is getting on your case doesn’t actually encourage you to change for the right reasons (i.e. to be self-motivated) – it means you just do it to get people off your back. And then when there aren’t people on your back, what will happen then, eh?

The last point is one I feel strongly about personally. I was, speaking frankly, a bit of a waste of space for my first four years at secondary school – not that I did nothing at all, but never put much into anything. I suspect if my school had the sort of “monitoring lists” and “causes for concern” we do now, I’d have been on them. Nothing more significant than adolescence and other priorities caused it, mind.  But around the end of the fourth year, I started to wake up when I realised O-levels were round the corner. Academically, I never looked back after that, and by the end of the sixth form, I was the one the Headmistress wanted to introduce to the school inspector. Now if I’d had the sort of interventions that happen in schools these days, that waking up would never have happened – I might have done a bit more early on, but it would have been for all the wrong reasons and I would never have taken ownership of my own performance in the way I actually did. I’m pretty sure I’d have done less well academically as a result. I know not everyone’s like me, but for most kids I think we’ll be fighting a losing battle unless they are actually engaged with the problem. And whilst I can appreciate the need to keep parents reasonably informed, getting in touch with parents too often is also potentially counter-productive – if a child is nagged on all sides they can become more resistant and take less responsibility themselves, for a start. It’s also easier for us as teachers to take a longer view – we’ve seen many kids who are perfectly capable not do themselves justice in year 9 when hormones start to kick in, but we know the ones who’re likely to turn out fine – as a parent, it must be much harder to have that perspective.

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