Oops! All About Errors: What They Are, Why They Happen, and Are They Really Okay?
Written by: Ms. Alice Pilkey, Assistant Teacher (Redondo Beach)
On Friday afternoon, your children leave school carrying stacks of artwork and other papers produced throughout the week. When you get to the car and strap them in, your five-year-old proudly extracts a sheet of sums from her collection and hands it to you; quickly scanning, you find that alongside several accurate answers, she has listed the sums of two and seven as six, and four and one as eight. At the top of the page, three letters in her name have been written backwards, and none of these mistakes appear to have been corrected by her teacher.
Not to be outdone, your seven-year-old hands you an original story. Reading aloud, you once again notice errors, this time in spelling. Since you know he is studying spelling, you wonder whether his teacher has even read the story: not one error has been marked. What, you wonder, is going on in this school? How can your children learn, if their mistakes are never caught?
Scroll back in time to when your children were first learning to walk. Their legs wobbled; they had trouble navigating around obstacles; and they tumbled constantly. And yet, apart from questions of immediate safety, you felt little cause for concern. Understanding the challenges they faced, you gave your children the time and the space to practice walking; despite the fact that this meant, more often than not, allowing them to fall.
Although older children look quite different from young ones, and face an entirely different set of challenges, it is important for us to remember that, just like their younger brothers and sisters, they are learners too. Our goal in Montessori education is to give children of all ages the latitude to practice whatever they are working on—be it walking, toileting, writing, or long division—independently: that is, without undue interruption, praise, or criticism on the part of the teacher. Oriented to the child's learning process, rather than to its immediate product, we accept a certain degree of error, within any given product, as a natural reflection of the child's independent experience.
In traditional schools, teachers tend to hide their own mistakes from their students. They do this because they are expected to be right, to have all the correct answers, and to comb their students' work for errors. Unfortunately, students can come to rely on their teachers for this service, and make mistakes “unconsciously and with complete indifference, because it is not their business to correct them but the teacher's” (Montessori, 1995, 248). Over time, according to Montessori, the constant need to check work with a teacher can lead to “a discouraging sense of inferiority and a lack of confidence in oneself”; and the repeated experience of being corrected to, similarly, an overall lowering of interest and energy (248, 245). Children who lose ownership of their work—by, for example, consistently 'getting it right' in order to please parents and teachers—eventually lose interest in that work, as the reward for doing it lies outside of their own experience. When adults are no longer watching, they have little reason to go on. Children, on the other hand, who work simply because they enjoy what they are doing experience an intrinsic reward: the process itself satisfies them. Over time, these children are far more likely to persist, no matter how challenging the work eventually becomes.
In Montessori classrooms, teachers do not hide their own mistakes from their students. Instead, they reveal these errors and invite children to observe the process of self-correction. When demonstrating how to pour rice from one small pitcher to another, for example, a pre-primary teacher might spill a few grains; stop what she is doing; and allow a young child to watch her remedy the situation by picking up what she has spilt. A transition or elementary teacher might misspell a word, while demonstrating writing a sentence—wonder aloud about the correct spelling—and, as children continue to watch, fetch a dictionary and correct the mistake.
A crucial concept in Montessori education, control of error is the built-in component of any given material which allows children to identify and correct mistakes without adult intervention. While not all children choose to use the control of error every time they use a material, they nonetheless know that it is available, because teachers have demonstrated how to use it: how, for example, to flip the sound cylinders over after pairing them on the basis of volume to see whether or not the color-coded dots at their bases match. Montessori defines control of error, simply, as “any kind of indicator which tells us whether we are going toward our goal, or away from it,” and characterizes children brought up in its presence—that is, in environments where control of error is consistently available—as tending “toward exactitude,” or implicitly interested in finding and correcting as many errors as they can (Montessori, 1995, 248-250). In a community, moreover, in which error is accepted as a natural occurrence, “it becomes a matter of general interest to correct errors wherever they may be found. The error itself becomes interesting” and functions, according to Montessori, as “a bond of fellowship between human beings” since all people, children and adults alike, make mistakes sometimes (250).
As children mature and the new work presented to them becomes increasingly complex, a gap in time can develop, however, between introduction of a new concept or procedure and utilization, by the child, of the relevant control of error. Children may choose to immerse themselves in direct experience of a process first, before they begin to self-correct; and, we need to allow them to do this. When first introduced to a mathematical operation like addition, for example, arriving at the correct answer might matter far less to a child than coming to terms with the underlying concept. Part of our obligation as educators is to understand and accept this.
When emerging writers misspell words, two factors may be at work. On the one hand, children may be taking ownership of the phonetic code and inventing spellings, as part of a beneficial process similar to the process by which they assimilate and, at times, overgeneralize the rules of spoken language. A child who explains that she “eated” the apple reveals an understanding of the way the past tense is usually constructed in English; this is a forward step, as she has clearly learned the rule, although she has not yet memorized the exceptions (Barron, 47). In the same vein, a child who spells love “luv” reveals a similar understanding of basic phonetic rules, as well as both the ability and willingness to make use of them for purposes of self-expression. In 1971, linguist Carol Chomsky first encouraged teachers of young children to facilitate this process, instead of introducing, and expecting children to adopt, conventional spellings from the outset. “The printed word,” she wrote, “'belongs' to the spontaneous speller in a way in which it cannot, at least at the start, belong to children who have experienced it only ready-made” (Chomsky, 149). Rather than viewing the written word “as something alien imposed from without, something arbitrary out there which the adult world has constructed to make life difficult,” spontaneous spellers experience it as a means of expressing themselves and, in time, transition smoothly into reading, often with no further intervention on the part of adults (142, 149).
Older or more advanced writers—already familiar with conventional spellings—may, on the other hand, continue to misspell words when focusing on content; they may, that is, be more interested in the what than the how, as they write on any given topic. Unless it is done by force, i.e. by the teacher, pulling the two together may take some time, since the chief control of error in spelling is not a dictionary or other straightforward classroom resource, but rather a broad base of reading experience. And, unless the direct purpose of a writing assignment is utilization of conventional spellings, Montessori teachers are unlikely to intervene, since children who are judged wrong in the matter of spelling can feel demoralized as writers. Their skills of composition can suffer, as they choose not to risk using challenging words again; opting, instead, to play it safe in the future by limiting themselves to only the simplest vocabulary.
As children are first learning to write, we often see mirror writing in Montessori classrooms: individual letters, and even whole words, flipped around and written backwards. This tends to occur most frequently as children are introduced to place value in math, and begin performing operations moving from right to left across columns representing, in sequence, units, tens, hundreds, and thousands. While experimentation with writing from right to left can, at this point, alarm parents, it is nonetheless quite natural for children. And, although Montessori teachers do not correct the way children shape letters and words directly—crossing out or erasing errors on paper, as traditional teachers might—they do use indirect means to address these errors, most often by guiding children back to the materials designed to prepare them for writing in the first place, such as the sandpaper letters (Montessori, 2003, 239). Once again, however—as in the case of spelling—time proves an even more effective remedy, since broad experience of reading gives children, in the end, the frame of reference they need in order to consistently write from left to right.
Rather than emphasizing perfection, Montessori teachers are more concerned with how children feel: about themselves, and about the work they do. The ultimate goal is positive self-esteem, albeit of a different variety than the self-esteem based on the approval or validation of others (Stephenson, 1). We want children to feel good about themselves because they enjoy what they are doing; not because someone else assures them that they are doing it well. For this reason, we do everything we can to avoid passing judgment, either positive or negative, on their efforts, instead empowering them with the tools they need to evaluate their performances themselves.
Barron, Marlene. “Whole Language: Learning the Natural Way.” Montessori Life: Fall 1989. Reprinted in Readings in Language Arts. Garden Grove, CA: Montessori Western Teacher Training Program.
Chomsky, Carol. “Write Now, Read Later.” Childhood Education 47: 1971. Reprinted in Language in Early Childhood Education, edited by Courtney B. Cazden. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1981.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995.
———. The Montessori Method. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003.
Stephenson, Susan M. “Aiding the Development of Self-Esteem in Children.” AMI/USA: Parenting for a New World, Vol. V, No. 2: June 1996.
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