Thoughts on Education: Academic Mistakes

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OMS Montessori students develop a high degree of self-esteem and self-accomplishment as they inquire, investigate and discover, rather than listen to lessons, memorize information and write tests. This is how the carefully prepared learning environments in our school, combined with Dr. Montessori’s philosophy of education, make a lasting difference for the Element High School graduates.  
The four major ways that OMS Montessori impacts each student’s development positively are:
  1. It provides a safe environment for making academic mistakes.
  2. It uses constructive learning methods.
  3. It utilizes non-stigmatizing grading methods. Learning from one’s mistakes is universally viewed as a positive sign of growth.
  4. It provides a safe environment for making social mistakes.

When people make a mistake, realize its consequences, and problem-solve a solution, they grow. A person’s self-concept relating to solution-based thinking is the greatest indicator of life-long success. This concept will be presented in four parts. 

Education Reformer Theodore Sizer believes that our society is producing non-thinkers. In the quest for not making a mistake, students are encouraged to do memorization of basic knowledge, the lowest level of learning, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy of tiered questioning (who, what where versus describe, analyze, evaluate). It is less of a risk to repeat memorized facts and be assured a good grade than to take the risk of divergent thinking, which may not yield the “right” answer — the student thereby risking a poor grade. The student is asked to learn the right answer for a quiz, test or exam and this product becomes the educational goal.
What is different in a Montessori classroom? As many of you have witnessed at OMS Montessori, the emphasis is on process in the learning cycle, and the product or the answer is a secondary goal. In every learning sequence, students spend considerable time in process – the interaction with materials, trial and error, trying out their thoughts and, finally, discovering the procedure and solution on their own. After students have made the learning “really theirs” through process, then the product is emphasized. This is extremely important in today’s world, where it is said 90% of what a child will need to know in his lifetime will be discovered in his lifetime. In order to keep updated with changing information in a rapidly evolving world, the process of learning how to learn will be the tool necessary for a successful life in the real world. Ultimately, it will be of greater value for a student to know the process for problem-solving in any situation (mathematics, an experiment, a class debate, conflict in a social situation). As current information, concepts and technology become obsolete in the decades to come, process will trump as THE method of learning.
Another avenue that encourages students to profit by their mistakes is the interaction of the teacher as a coach. According to philosopher/educator Mortimer Adler, coaching is the descriptive feedback that a teacher can give when the teacher/student ratio is small. For younger students, it may occur when a teacher prompts a student to consider alternate ways to use materials through questioning rather than telling or suggesting. The student maintains a sense of dignity through this type of feedback, as he rearranges the materials to devise a solution for himself. For an older student, it may occur when a teacher side-by-side edits a piece of writing with him or her; the discussion that takes place through the editing and revision processes is invaluable. This consistent, positive interaction leads students to grow to a higher level of learning, and the mistakes or misconceptions are the avenues of growth instead of a negative experience.
In a Montessori classroom, the teacher/student ratio is low so that the teacher can coach the students. Dr. Montessori referred to the teacher as the directress, indicating that the goal is not to dispense knowledge or “fill up an empty head,” but to direct, coach, and inspire students into their own discovery of knowledge. Students who have guidance in their learning and ongoing, positive interaction with the teacher at their academic level have positive self-esteem. At OMS Montessori, we are building a community of learners who:
  • participate actively in the discovery process of learning
  • benefit from viewing error as detour to the solution
  • can competently transfer the skills learned in any given lesson to a new situation
  • abound with a sense of confidence in their problem-solving skills 
Warm regards,
Gregory Dixon
School Director
View an informative article on the topic of the Control of Error in Montessori education.