Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Chapter 24: Mistakes and Their Correction

I am taking a risk here and posting about a chapter completely out of order. I hope no one is upset by this, our reading group seems to have stalled. I thought perhaps if I posted about a chapter that most of us might be really interested in and relates specifically to problems in our classrooms that we might have some discussion. It's a little easier to write about how the book affected something you do than to just start talking about the book in general.

This weekend I blogged at What DID We Do All Day about the things I don't know and my search for the answers. One of the important aspects of teaching using the Montessori method that I really need a lot of help with is correcting mistakes. I am really looking for someone to tell me what it is I need to read or study. Montessori teachers have to be learning this somewhere, right? Anyone know where? I posted the other day looking for some recommendations but suggestions for actual reading material didn't materialize. I did get some friendly advice which was great. Thank you. I'm really hoping that this isn't a word-of-mouth only topic. If it is, I really hope that some of the wonderful trained Montessorians that I read and correspond with on line will accept the challenge to write a landmark piece on it.

All of this rooting around in my Montessori library did unearth chapter 24, "Mistakes and Their Correction," in The Absorbent Mind. Promising title, right? Unfortunately it didn't really address what I was looking for. There was a lot about how the materials are self-correcting and why. There was a lot about the teacher not calling the students names or fastening "asses' ears" to stupid children. There wasn't much about specifically what the teacher might do or say when when the child makes an error and does not correct themselves (such as using the wrong stroke directions in the sand tray). I think I need a source with more "modelling."

However, there were some words that seemed to get to the crux of my problem that I will share.

...there is one thing she [the teacher] must never do and that is, to interfere by praising a child's work, or punishing him if it is wrong, or even by correcting his mistakes [my emphasis]. [244]

This is reinforced by her statement later:

As soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist. [280]

Of course I've read this about Montessori before, in many places in many words. It is good to see it again baldly stated to act as if they do not exist, even while they are making mistakes. This is easy for me to do most of the time. For example, when Me Too is working with the cylinder blocks and has a cylinder in the wrong hole I know that he will get to the end and work out the problem. It is a little harder when when Me Too is working on pouring beans and keeps pouring them all over because he is forgetting to aim the spout over the center of the container. After a few times I step in and say something like "if you aim the spout in the middle it won't spill." I am definitely not "acting as if the child doesn't exist" in that situation. It is even more unclear what to do when the mistakes are happening during an activity that you are doing together, such as learning to trace sandpaper letters in the right direction and then replicate those steps in the salt tray. I struggle with knowing how much to say. After three attempts silent demonstrations in which I am sure he is engaged, paying attention, and wants to do it correctly and is still unsuccessful the only thing I know to do is to "tell" him what he can do to make it right.

However, I also found the following words in chapter 24:

So, what science and practical life both need must surely be accepted from the start as necessary in education. This is the possibility of "recognizing one's own mistakes." We must provide this as well as instruction and materials on which to work. the power to make progress comes in large measure from having freedom and an assured path along which to go; but to this must also be added some way of knowing if, and when, we have left the path. [248]

The chapter goes on, again, to discuss how the apparatus is always designed to have control of error. In fact, the first few times I read this chapter the above sentences were completely drowned out by the material that came after it. However, at some point my eyes landed on that section alone, and I found them to be thought provoking. The sources I have always used to model my presentations of materials on have been concentrating on three things: analyzing movements, perfection in presentation, and minimal words. Using the "control of error" part always has seemed like an afterthought. For example, in the building of the brown stair using the smallest prism to check the work has seemed like an "extension" of the activity you may do later. There is also, I think, a natural hesitance in pointing out the control of error in some activities (such as the colored dots underneath smelling bottles) in fear that you might encourage them to "cheat" (use the dots to match the bottles instead of the scent).

For the past week I have been thinking "what would happen if I treat the control of error as equal in importance to the rest of my presentation?" If my boys have truly been shown how to check their work and I am therefore confident that they know how to check it can I combine that with taking a step further back and be steadfast in acting as if the child does not exist? I was reminded of a moment about two weeks ago when Kal-El returned the brown stair to the shelf and the prisms were out of order. I stepped in, pointed to one of the out-of-place prisms and asked "is that where that goes?" He shook his head and fixed it. I repeated my question for the next one, and the next one. When he was done Kal-El took the smallest prism and used it to check that the size difference from prism to prism was the same size as that smallest prism. If I had not stepped in, would he have corrected his errors on his own?

So, I tried it this week. We've done most of our work outside the classroom due to some weatherizing and minor construction going on in the school room. Yesterday, Me Too was working with his stacking/nesting cups. He has had them out for a year and has never nested them correctly. My husband and I were talking in the kitchen and Me Too brought them in and was working with them on the kitchen floor. I watched him (out of the corner of my eye) immediately make three mistakes in a row in nesting the cups. Usually he asks for help right away or I step in and do a mini-presentation. But this time I was talking to my husband and decided not to step in. We've been working with the boys on not interrupting and it must be working because Me Too didn't ask for help. I forgot all about him in the course of our concentration and when we were done talking and I was doing dishes I saw Me Too pick up a set of perfectly nested cups to return them to the shelf in his room. I asked my husband, "did you help him with that?" He hadn't. We left him alone and the control of error did take care of it.

I left Kal-El alone when he was having trouble zipping his jeans. I usually step in and straighten things out (narrating as I do) when they are all tangled. This time I heard him mumble the steps to fixing the potential problems to himself and he did it. Every activity that had a clear control of error took care of itself probably 75% of the time.

This still leaves me with burning questions. What do I do the 25% of the time when the boys are being lazy and intentionally do not check their work? Do I ignore it? What about the works that do not have a control of error or the control of error does not work? For example, theMontessori AMI Primary Guide states that the control of error in sandpaper letters is the "In the sandpaper. If the child's fingers slip away from the sandpaper he notices the different feeling by the surface." This control of error does not correct strokes done in the wrong order or wrong direction.

Can anyone else find anything useful in this chapter? Any thoughts on mistakes and their correction? Have you tried any of this at home? Other ideas?

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