May 20, 2003
Dalrymple (and me) on the need for consistent correction

Remember that boy called Ali whom I once taught maths to? Well, of course you don't, but I do. The gist of what I said about Ali was that I thought he had been misinformed by inconsistent correcting of his work. After all if you tell a kid that 2+2=4 and not 5, but leave 2+2=5 unmolested elsewhere in the same piece of homework, what is he supposed to think? Confusion is bound to follow.

This was why I had a special place in my affections for children who always got the same sum wrong, but with the same wrong answer. They may not have got the right answer, but at least they had grasped that there was a right answer. They were merely wrong about what it was.

Anyway, I've been reading more Theodore Dalrymple on education (see below). And guess what? – have a read of this:

I was told of one school where the teachers were allowed by the headmaster to make corrections, but only five per piece of work, irrespective of the number actually present. This, of course, was to preserve the amour propre of the children, but it seemed not to have occurred to this pedagogue that his five-correction rule was likely to unfortunate consequences. The teacher might choose to correct an error in the spelling of a word, for example, and overlook precisely the same error in the next piece of work. How is a child to interpret correction based on this headmaster's principle? the less intelligent, perhaps, will regard it as a species of natural hazard, like the weather, about which he can do very little; while the more intelligent are likely to draw the conclusion that the principle of correction as such is inherently arbitrary and unjust.

Which is taking it a stage further than I did, but the procedure I was complaining about is what Dalrymple also attacks. Either way, inconsistent correction is a recipe for confusion and ignorance.

In my opinion one of the most basic educational principles is to understand that correcting error is not the same as launching a wounding personal attack on the corrected person. On the contrary, every time a child is told to stop doing something wrong and to do it right is a step in the right direction for that child and a potential cause for celebration and congratulation, rather than for woe. It all depends how you do the correcting.

Sometimes, I suppose, a little aversion therapy is in order. This was how I was taught to drive, by a man sitting next to me who shouted and hit me with his pencil every time I made a mistake. I stopped making mistakes. Given what can happen to you when you make a mistake when driving a car, this is not an unreasonable way to teach driving skills, I'd say. It certainly worked for me, and it did so after I'd been unsuccessfully prepared for the test by a kinder but less relentless and unkind instructor whom I eventually stopped using.

But correcting doesn't have to be hurtful in this way. No, not like that. Like this. Well done! Very good!

There you are, teachers. That's not hard, now is it? Cretins!!!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
Category: How to teach