pt contributed to the Brookline TAB and the Watertown TAB between 2000 - 2004 (see on "Categories" list) A month-long reorganization of my computer files uneathed this unpublished column from 2002.
Creating The Right Environment For the "Right" answer. February, 2002
Remember the time you sat in an audience, thought about responding to a question, then hesitated as you wondered whether you actually had the “right” answer? And the worry that if you were indeed wrong, the person at the head of the room might laugh at your answer or allow others to do so? Whether it was yesterday or years ago I’ll bet everyone remembers an occasion like that which bulked up a resolve to let others do the risk taking while you cautiously and safely observed from the sidelines.
Last week, I was showing my fourth graders how use logic to solve certain math problems. Remember the problems that say "Four fourth graders meet on the beach while they are on vacation. Their names are Debbie, Dawn, Becky, and Cathy. They are from California, Illinois, Utah, and Texas. Becky is from California and Dawn is not from Illinois. If Cathy is from Utah, where is Debbie from?
I knew you’d remember those! I began to draw a chart on the board.
"To solve a problem like this, you can use logic. Actually there's a phrase some people use to describe this strategy, it's called the process of... “ here I paused, awaiting a response.
Sam’s hand popped up as if sprung from a jack-in-the-box. "Yes! It's the process of discrimination!" he said with conviction.
My eyes lit up with delight. “Sam, I love it! Well, you're close, it's called the process of elimination!" The boy sitting in front of Sam chimed in with, "Kids say the darndest things!” which got us all laughing together.
“You know, Sam, you really could make a case for it being called a process of discrimination, too, because when you discriminate, you favor one thing over another. In this case, I suppose you would be favoring what’s logical over what’s not logical.”
"That's something I love about our class. I’ve encouraged you all year to participate in lessons. I keep saying that you’ll learn something every time you participate. Even if it turns out to be funny when you don’t intend it. The best thing is that we laugh with each other not at each other." The kids in 4T knew that was true.
Finally, with plenty of chuckles about Sam’s “discrimination”, we solved the problem. (For those of you about to pull out a piece of chart paper, if Becky's from California, logic tells you that she's not from Illinois, Utah, or Texas, so you can eliminate those possibilities!). This delightful episode will make it into our “highlight film” of the year. Why?
For me, it was an opportunity to use an incorrect response to reinforce a sense of trust in the learning process and to define who we are as a class. My job is to transparently incorporate children’s mistakes into the learning environment. When I ask, “Tell me what makes you say that”, to a student’s seemingly incorrect or unrelated response, the answer often holds a new insight I hadn’t thought of. And if they’re really off the mark, I can point them in the right direction.
Teachers who ask questions notice that mistakes often demonstrate thinking that represents unique ways of looking at or solving problems. Remember how Edison said that invention was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration? Well, an elementary school classroom is often like that. (Actually I think there’s a higher percentage of inspiration but that’s grist for another column!)
There’s lots of “perspiration” in an elementary school classroom and kids who are learning often make mistakes. Watching them as they learn from mistakes is one of the daily rewards of my job. Truth be told, we teachers aren’t exempt from mistakes, either. My good-natured response, “If you were as observant with your own work as you are with finding errors in my work, I'd have a lot less correcting to do!” has been heard more than once this year. Acknowledging our miscalculations and showing how we revise them is a healthy model for our students.
In his book Weird Ideas That Work, Robert Sutton, professor at Stanford University, says, “The domain of creativity is risk and a high failure rate.” He quotes Babe Ruth’s optimism when the slugger reportedly said “every strike brings me closer to a home run.” to illustrate that people who are persistent and who try hard have many failures to go along with their achievements. Babe Ruth struck out a lot too, didn’t he?
That’s the message for teachers who want to create a culture of responsible risk taking in school. I guess I like being surrounded by a bunch of perspiring optimists in my classroom!