It has often been said we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, yet mistakes are often thought of as something to be avoided if at all possible.
And the best way to avoid mistakes is to never take a chance or to never try something new. One never makes a mistake sitting on the sofa pointing out all the mistakes made by the football teams and coaches on TV. One never loses the next election by sitting in the pub pointing out the fact that all politicians are corrupt and incompetent. One never gets panned by critics by being critical of the books, movies, and music produced by others.
On the other hand achieving success, accomplishing one's life goals or getting the most out of one's talent rarely comes to those who try to go through life avoiding mistakes. Successfully companies are not started by individuals who are too afraid of failure to get a business off the ground. Books do not get published by writers unwilling to send their material out and risk receiving rejection notices. A band will never make the "big time" unless it is willing to play original music instead of seeking the audience's easy approval by playing covers of the hits of others.
As teachers, do we sometimes get too caught up in finding and punishing mistakes? Does this focus on pointing out mistakes discourage students from taking chances and trying out new ideas?
I often have student asking why I take off points for a specific assignment. I usually counter by saying I do not take off points for what the students does, but students earn points by his or her efforts. Instead of focusing on what mistakes to avoid in order not to have points deducted, I would prefer my students to think of how they can build points by being creative, innovative and analytical. I want to focus on encouraging students to do good work instead of avoiding bad work. I think this is more than a matter of semantics, I think it is a difference in mindset.
A case could be made much of our current educational system is focused on avoiding mistakes and creating conformity instead of allowing students more room for experimenting and trail and error. This type of education probably served the needs of the majority of a population expected to work in factories or bureaucracies during the industrial era, but is it the optimal method for today's information age?
What is so wrong about students making mistakes on assignments? Do most students learn more by following instructions to the letter and producing an assignment with few mistakes by a tried and true method or by experimenting and trying something new and making many mistakes?
I understand in reality avoiding mistakes and encouraging creativity are not mutually exclusive. There are places for both. We really don't want our airline pilots trying something new and learning from their mistakes. We also don't normally encourage creative answers in mathematics or accounting. But in general, as educators we might not give enough freedom to our students to take chances and make mistakes. After all, the end products of our courses (the assignments, papers or tests) are of no importance, but the learning that occurs doing the process is what will be taken away. While focusing on avoiding mistakes might make the assignments better, does it improve the learning process?
A personal example; I am currently working for an American university's program in China and I am working on learning to speak Chinese. A Chinese friend used to help me with my lessons. However each time I got a tone wrong (about every other word) I would be stopped and corrected until I got it perfect. This prevented me from stringing together a complete sentence and really discouraged me from trying to speak the language.
When we break out the red pens and begin marking and pointing out all errors are we also discouraging some of our students? Can more focus on creating quality work as opposed to avoiding errors improve the learning process?
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,
as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics. One of his latest works can be found at this link.