When learners make mistakes in class, we may have a hard time deciding how to respond. If we come from a culture of self-esteem, we may worry about students’ psyche and avoid correction. If from a culture of self-improvement, we may give too much correction that is too direct. Yet, learning doesn’t happen without making mistakes. If not corrected, students can get stuck. If given in the wrong way, the correction may not “take.” Below are some suggestions that might help.
We want students to leave our classes knowing what’s right just like the Master Teacher wants us to study His Word and actively remember. But, the point of error correction is not to stick to our guns and ensure students get it right. The underlying goal is for them to become autonomous learners—noticing their errors and self-correcting. They need an internal monitor for mistakes just like we need one for sin, and we all need a calibrator, whether teacher or Master Teacher.
No one error treatment leads to this desired outcome, but two that may work are:
- questions that lead to self-correction by: 1) asking students to clarify, 2) breaking the error into manageable chunks, or 3) drawing other students in to “help.”
- a prompt: 1) “We talked about that earlier. What’s the rule?” or 2) a pre-taught device like the Rubber Chicken that indicates an error has been made, possibly in a humorous way.
Choose your battles
In an attempt to help a language student self-correct, I experimented in a conversation one day. Every time she made a mistake, I pretended not to understand. Not surprisingly, I exasperated her.
Instead of exasperating our students, we can choose our battles in the classroom and focus on errors that:
- are common and frequent, ones most students struggle with.
- are easily corrected because they’re simple or related to something we’ve just taught.
- have potentially negative (and long-term) effects—our students won’t pass their exam or get the next point in our lesson, or they might be misunderstood or laughed at.
- occur in accuracy-focused activities and not when real (and possibly heartfelt) communication is taking place.
- deal with facts and not opinions.
People over Problems
We’ve talked here before about the importance of an encouraging, trust-filled classroom environment as a way to face off fear. And last week, Jill talked about creating a positive classroom culture in the context of strong relationships. What does this culture look like? In part, it’s a place where everyone acknowledges mistakes, especially the teacher, and where we all laugh at ourselves as we attempt to get things right.
Tone and attitude also come into play. I had a Chinese teacher who responded to mistakes with a decisive ‘错,” “wrong.” Perhaps he should have chosen a less direct treatment, but his approach worked because his tone was gentle and matter-of-fact. Of course, our best example is Yahweh. We have sinned much and deserve nothing more than a lot of correction. Yet His attitude is gracious, compassionate, patient, and permeated with love.
The Confusion of Culture
Culture can confuse our picture of error correction because of not only differences but also our confused understandings. Chinese culture is a good example. Many new teachers learn right off that causing a loss of face is a no-no, and then they assume students’ errors shouldn’t be corrected in class and possibly not at all. But in a society that also values both relationship and self-improvement (vs. self-esteem), correcting mistakes is a way to show concern for someone. Imagine the impression we make when we care for our students enough to correct their mistakes with the graciousness and compassion of our Master.
Richard E. Nisbett, in The Geography of Thought (2003, Free Press)，suggests that there is a “push to feel good about the self” in the West as compared to a “drive for self-improvement” in the East. In a study he reports on, a feeling of success motivated Canadian students to work harder. Japanese students were motivated by an opportunity to do better.
For specific examples, see Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov (2010, Jossey-Bass).