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A School That Celebrates Mistakes?

Posted by on Aug 4, 2011 in General | No Comments

In most schools “mistakes” are to be avoided like the plague.  They often end up marked in red X’s and end up counting against students.  At the Workshop we will encourage students to make mistakes, as we understand error or failure as central to authentic learning.  Unlike regular school, where the assumption is that teachers know and the students don’t, at the Workshop the curriculum will be based on real world problems.  You know, the ones that don’t have the correct answer in the back of the book.  In fact if they are really good problems they most likely don’t have any one correct answer at all.  They are, in word, messy, and like most messes require a great deal of muddling around in.   Cleaning them up means making mistakes.

Unfortunately, the questions we give students in schools almost always already have right answers.  This means they are fake questions posed to students so that they can learn the skills to answer real problems.  But why are we so intent on offering kids fake problems when the world is teeming with real ones that can engage the passion of interests of kids?   I think in part schools are afraid of losing control over who knows and who does not know.  I also think that if our problems did not have one right answer how would we sort kids out?  This means that schools might be places where kids learn to not make mistakes, which in many ways is not learning how to learn. They learn to stay between the lines, to figure out what the right answer is give it back to someone who already knows it.  This makes school a game of learning to be right.   In terms of schools preparing our youth to tackle the insanely complex problems that will confront them in the 21st century, this approach could not be more wrong.

The economist Tim Harford refers to this as the “God Complex,” and in his TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_harford.html) blasts school for incubating it.  In a nutshell, the God complex is thinking there is one right answer to infinitely complex problems- and that one has it.  In other words, the God Complex simplifies problems for the sake of being right.

Standardized tests rule in our schools while unstandardized problems rule our world.    If the world does not come in the neat little multiple choice bubbles then what is the point of these tests?  To count the number of mistakes students make, which they can then compare against other students.  The tests strip away the complexity of a world to create tests that then do the same to students, who are reduced to neat and manageable score.  This is the God Complex.

There are few if any standardized tests in the real world.  Most of the challenges and problems I confront have no study guides or completely right answers.  The only way to make one answer appear as the only one it to mercilessly hack the complexity out of the problem.  Leaving the confounding complexity in makes being “right” much harder, if not impossible.  Moving forward on these problems means not only making mistakes but then doing something with them, namely learning.   Try to imagine a school that celebrated mistakes, that ushered in wrong answers in as the necessary precursor to authentic learning?   Imagine a school that held a competition around making the best mistake?

This is what we have imagined at the Workshop- a place to botch things up and head back to the drawing board one step closer to a solution.  In his TED talk, Harford talks of the critical importance of making mistakes.  I take this to mean that problems should be approached in such a way that failing to solve them succeeds in terms of learning.   The American philosopher John Dewey called this reflective thought, and considered teaching students how to do it the proper goal of education.  To do this, he argued that means and ends must be the same:  you teach students how to solve real problems by having them solve real problems.   But we don’t do that in school, which makes “school” the biggest real-world problem for far too many students.

Steeping students in standardized problems that teaches them to avoid mistakes at costs is to school them in the God complex.  School, learning and for that matter all of us are messy, real world and infinitely complex phenomena.   Makes making mistakes can give us a glimpse of what we might not know, and if we are thoughtful about it the direction we should go to get a bit closer to knowing.   If we are able to do this, to make a mistake and learn from it, then we have made a good one.