Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Let Kids Make Decisions...and Mistakes

As both an educator and a parent I need to constantly remind myself to let kids, both my own and the students with whom I work, make as many decisions as feasibly possible WITHOUT my intervention.  This becomes most difficult when poor decisions are made and failure is clearly more than just a possibility.  Obviously this rule doesn't apply if any serious harm or damage will result from making an ill advised choice, but adults in the modern world seem to have largely forgotten what most of our parents knew, that making decisions is a big part of life and that wise decisions often come from earlier poor decisions.  I was reminded of this just the other day when my two year old son refused to wear his jacket, leading to a long discussion (don't bother trying to reason TOO much with a two year old) and eventually arguments and tears (some of which were his!).  But afterward I asked myself "why?".  It was cold out, but far from freezing, he may have felt uncomfortable but there was certainly no danger.  (...and I hope we're all beyond the belief that a "chill" is the cause of any illness).  Of course it was about him asserting his will, testing another scenario in which he might have some power.  So why not let him assert it in this case?  He'll be the one living with the consequences, either he'll be fine or he may learn that jackets aren't such a bad idea in October in Canada.  Either way, the results were his to discover from his choice, and even if he didn't learn (he is only two after all) he would get the message that yes, he does have some affect on his own life.  Choices like this are small pieces of the larger puzzle of self determination and personal efficacy.

As educators we need to follow the same guidelines.  John Abbott, in his work with the 21st Century Learning Initiative often talks about the "principle of subsidiarity" as applied to education.  Originally a term associated with the catholic church, the principle of subsidiarity refers to the notion that all decisions should be made at the lowest level of authority possible.  In other words, districts shouldn't make decisions that could be made at the school level, schools shouldn't be making decisions that can be made at the classroom or teacher level and (this is the one we too often forget) educators should not be making decisions regarding a child's education that could feasibly be made by the child.  Whether the decision is something as large as which course of study to follow, or something as banal as whether or not to do homework, we spend too much time and energy pushing, pestering, cajoling and offering unsolicited advice, hoping to help kids avoid poor decisions and mistakes.  We often tell kids that mistakes are a learning opportunity, but if we then go too far out of our way to help kids avoid them it becomes nothing more than a meaningless platitude.  Making wise decisions is a skill and mastering any skill takes practice.

We must also be aware that if learning by doing and erring  is valuable, we can't then stick with traditional "grading" practices that tend to punish mistakes.  Thankfully ever greater numbers of teachers are moving to assessment for  and as learning techniques that recognize the value in mistakes and don't punish students who make them.  By definition formative assessment exists specifically as a way for kids to test what they think without fear of failure or punishment.  Therefore educators we need to move toward models where formative assessment comprises the bulk of how we assess student work.

There are numerous reasons proffered for "bubble wrapping" kids/students from errors, but to me they all seem to boil down to three main categories, and none of them are valid.  First (and this is one that nobody will admit to) comes laziness.  Quite simply, it's often easier and faster to help kids avoid errors than to clean up or debrief (or whatever the case may be) afterward.  Next there's the pretty well debunked self esteem type arguments; kids will feel badly about not doing well.  This of course is not true in and of itself, kids only feel bad when there are value judgements attached to errors and failure, and that's on us, as educators and parents to rectify.  Finally (and here's another one people won't admit to on the surface) there's the purely selfish argument for helping kids avoid pitfalls.  We, as parents or educators, feel bad when our kids don't succeed. After all, it's natural to empathize.  But from hyper protective parents who won't let their kids climb trees to "helicopter parents" who travel with their adult children to college, deep down it makes us feel better to smooth things over.  None of these lines of reasoning are valid.  But we all know, whatever the excuse, that acting as "fixers" for all our kids' woes is simply setting them up for bigger and potentially more critical failures down the road.  More importantly, it leaves them unable to cope emotionally with setback and loss.  Protect your kids from genuinely dangerous decisions, and help guide your students without coercion or pressure, but remember that when all is said and done we all need to "learn things the hard way" once in a awhile.  When it happens, bite your lip, relax and keep telling yourself that it's a learning experience.