Interrogating the mistakes

We tend to focus our attention on the things that students got right. This seems perfectly appropriate at first glance because we want to celebrate what they know. Their grades are reported in such a way as to highlight the number of questions answered correctly. The cut score (pass mark) is set based on what we (often arbitrarily) decide a reasonably competent student should know (there is no basis for setting 50% as the cut score, but that’s for another post). The emphasis is always on what is known rather than what is not known.

But if you think about it getting the right answer is a bit of a dead end as far as learning is concerned. There’s nowhere to go from there. But the wrong answer opens up a whole world of possibility. If the capacity to learn and move forward sits in the spaces taken up by faulty reasoning shouldn’t we pay more attention to the errors that students make? The mistakes give us a starting point from which to proceed with learning.

What if we changed our emphasis in the curriculum to focus attention on the things that students don’t understand? Instead of celebrating the points they scored for getting the right answer could we pay closer attention to the areas where they lost marks? And not in a negative way that makes students feel inferior or stupid. I’m talking about actually celebrating the wrong answers because it gives us a starting point and a direction to move. “You got that wrong. Great! Let’s talk about it. What was the first thing you thought when you read the question? Why did you say that? Did you consider this other option? What is the logical end point of the reasoning you used? Do you see now how your answer can’t be correct?” Imagine a conversation going like that. Imagine what it would mean for students’ ability to reflect on their thinking and practice.

We might end up with some powerful shared learning experiences as we get into students’ heads as we try to understand what and how they think. The faulty reasoning that got them to the wrong answer is way more interesting than the correct reasoning that got them to the right answer. A focus on the mistakes that they make would actually help improve students ability to learn in the future because you’d be helping to correct their faulty reasoning.

But we don’t do this. We focus on counting up the the right answers and celebrating them, which means that we deflect attention from the wrong answers. We make implicit the idea that getting the right answer is important and the getting the wrong answers are bad. But learning only happens when we interrogate the faulty reasoning that got us to the wrong answer.