“If I ran a school, I’d give the average grade to the ones who gave me all the right answers, for being good parrots. I’d give the top grades to those who made a lot of mistakes and told me about them, and then told me what they learned from them.”
– Buckminster Fuller
The whole system of secondary education – at least as I’ve known it – focuses on finding the right answer and rewarding that answer. The emphasis on the answer downplays the value and importance of the journey to find that answer.
I used to tell my students, “If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” Amazing considering what a risk-averse student I’d been myself! But just as my best math teachers graded my work for process as well as product, we teachers need to promote process as what matters. To create lifelong learners who can seek and make meaning, we need to make room for “mistakes” and meandering along the way. We should reward good process at least as much as good results.
This value should apply to the English classroom. We have more wiggle room, for who can rightfully claim that they know the subtext of a dramatic speech, or that they can explicate a poem with complete clarity about the author’s intent? We can identify problems with style and syntax, but they may be purposeful and strategic.
Some answers are inherently ambiguous and allow for that kind of exploration. Was Hamlet a hero for avenging his father? What about his responsibility for all those deaths? Why didn’t Steinbeck give Curley’s wife a name in Of Mice and Men? Other issues seem to have more clear-cut answers. With Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand makes a clear case for the need for individuals to stay true to themselves. An essay that promotes a different vision may be flawed, but the writer of that essay deserves an assessment of his/her argument, not just a knee-jerk response that the argument doesn’t hold up.
In the late 1980s my district had the privilege of using Writer’s Workbench, an early text analysis program that AT&T originally developed for its in-house writers. I loved its ability to quantify and analyze components of writing, turning over decision-making to the writers, giving them responsibility and ownership. Yet neither Faulkner’s novels nor The Declaration of Independence would have scored well on sentence variety or percentage of “to be” verbs, even though respect for those writings feels universal.
I required my student authors to print the analysis at both the draft and final stages. If some of the counts failed to pass the program’s thresholds, they simply needed to explain why their choices were justified. If we disagreed, that simply prompted more conversation, not punishment.
Albert Einstein offered a great corollary: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” I tried to encourage more fearlessness in my students. In my problem-solving class, the students who struggled most with the freedom – since there was never one “right answer” to the complex problems that they worked– tended to be Honors students used to the Pavlovian response of A’s for “right answers.” Those who’d never fully bought into that system tended to thrive, transforming into articulate leaders.
Schools should foster courage, exploration, risk-taking, and innovation in their learners. Punishing mistakes fails to do that. Instead we need to show learners where they may have gone wrong and then give them another chance.