Being Wrong

I had an interesting experience earlier today* that reminded me of Grace’s recent post about what she calls the “culture of correctness.”

A teacher was giving a demo lesson in a neighboring classroom and I popped in for a few minutes to observe. The tiny slice I saw gave me quite a bit to chew on. A warm-up problem asked students to vote with their feet by moving to one side of the room or another based on whether or not they thought a statement about vertical asymptotes was true or false. I happened to be sitting at the “true” side of the room. A handful of students joined me (though I was not voting); most students, however, moved to the “false” side of the room. The prospective teacher asked students to talk to someone near them about why they were standing on that side of the room. At this point a couple of students decided to switch from false to true. After the students shared with their partner, the teacher asked for a representative from the false side to explain her thinking and then for a representative from the true side to explain his thinking. Again, several students decided to switch their answer from false to true.

In this particular shift several students began “explaining” to those around them (or just talking out loud to the room in general) about why they had made a mistake. There was clearly some embarrassment and chagrin from these students, who seemed to feel compelled to share about their reason for making an error. I was a bit concerned about the activity making it highly public for students who got the question wrong–even though this was well over half the class–and was curious to see how the prospective teacher would deal with this.

From what I saw, this teacher did really well, especially considering that the teacher didn’t know any of these students. The teacher noted that several students had changed their mind–from the tone it was clear there was no judgement about this–and asked a couple of the students to explain what had happened in their thought-process that made them decide to switch places. One of the students who shared why she changed her mind was one of the ones that was most vocal as she walked across the classroom. As she had walked over I heard her downplay her abilities (“it’s because I’m so bad a factoring”). But when she explained to the class that she had neglected to factor the numerator, it seemed that she had come to a more comfortable place in her mistake-making. She no longer sounded like she was beating herself up over it.

After this activity I left to go back to my own class but I am looking forward to talking more about this moment and hearing this teacher’s perspective on it.

*I have delayed publishing this post as it talks about a prospective teacher’s demo lesson

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