During a recent online consultation and teacher workshop, the subject of “correcting work” came up. I wrote a little about this for the group, and thought I’d share some of my thoughts here also. I decided to use some quotations that may be less familiar, as they are taken from a collection of essays, articles, and lectures (Foundations of Montessori Pedagogy, published by the Indian Montessori Foundation in 2018). These essays, articles and lectures were written by Abs Joosten, who spent much of his career as a Trainer in India. His insights into Montessori theory and practice are deep, insightful, and full of information that is as relevant today as it was when he first put pen to paper.
When the adult corrects a child, then the adult objective of more “perfect” work is obtained. However, external correction such as this does not enable the child to personally understand/perceive the error that has been made. Had this power been present in the child, the error would not have been made!
Errors teach us when we identify for ourselves that an error has been made, when we proceed to investigate this, and when we do what we have discovered is necessary to correct the mistake made. We make the correction ourselves, with a conscious knowledge and understanding that has been obtained through our personal experience of identification, investigation, and discovery. This is the purpose of Montessori’s concept of “Control of Error”, and of the materials that arise from this landmark idea.
I have been doing a great deal of research lately for an upcoming book, and the power of this concept of “self correction” is confirmed again and again as being superior to adult-based “correction”. Here are two examples of research-based assessments of the “self correction” approach:
What are some of the things that have worked? Student self-correction ... (McCabe. 1993)
Effective teachers also help students to build skills of self-assessment ... Such self-assessment is an important part of the metacognitive approach to instruction. (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000)
Dr. Montessori thinking was very clear when it came to adults who had the habit of correcting the work of children:
There is one thing (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. This may sound absurd, and many people find it a stumbling block.
“How,” they say, “can you get the child on if you never correct his mistakes.
... All the crosses made by the teacher on the child’s written work, all her scoldings, only have a lowering effect on his energies and interests. To tell a child that he is naughty or stupid just humiliates him; it offends and insults, but it does not improve him. For if a child is to stop making mistakes, he must become more skilful, and how can he do this if, being already below standard, he is also discouraged? (Montessori, Maria. 1965)
By revealing the error we may lead the child to make an undue effort to remember, or we may discourage him, and it is our duty to avoid as much as possible all unnatural effort and all depression. (Montessori, Maria. 1965)
Other leaders in Montessori theory and practice agree. Abs Joosten, a Dutch Trainer, spent much of his career in India. A recently published book that collects some of his essays contains the following thoughts on the topic of correcting children’s work, which I have placed in an order that I think best makes his position clear:
Of all the faculties, the intelligence is the most sensitive to indiscriminate correction. Our direct corrections cause panic in the child’s mind and his intelligence folds up ... The other faculties are left in chaos, being deprived of its direction. (Joosten, A.M. 2018)
Simply to avoid mistakes, not to make mistakes, does not necessarily mean that one develops. It can also lead to a renunciation of and shying away from all activity (and this it often does in adults too). (Joosten, A.M. 2018)
What a critical distinction to make! Every time that we correct children we run the risk that our action will demoralize them ... And/or, they may come to associate whatever activity we corrected as being something that brings them pain ... They may resist any further engagement in this area, or they may dial down their efforts, their drive to experiment and to rise to the “next level”, because that entails the risk that (once again) an adult will criticize, and highlight the errors they've made.
I often say in Parent Information Evenings when this comes up: “How I wish that when a child brings home a page of mathematics calculations where only 2 out of 9 calculations are correct, that their parents would celebrate the two answers that are 100% correct, and point out how close to correct some of the others are, and make no comment about the problems that are very incorrect! Unfortunately, and way too often, parents emphasize the 7 problems that are wrong, often criticizing the child directly in the process. The hard work that the child has done is not recognized. The child’s feelings are ignored. And so self esteem is eroded, and any intention that the child might have had of doing some more problems tomorrow is demolished.”
If we correct indiscriminately, we never see the child’s interest gathering strength. We see the child getting disinterested in that activity in particular, and gradually in everything in general ... Another evil consequence of these indiscriminate corrections is that the child stops working on his own initiative. He feels that he cannot do anything. He is disheartened. He has lost all confidence in himself. (Joosten, A.M. 2018)
We obviously do not mean either that correction in itself is an obstacle to development. We mean only that any correction is not necessarily a help to development. Some are, some are not. One cannot do one’s duty as an educator by learning by heart never to correct or never to omit correcting, nor even when and when not to correct. We must learn to rightly judge when correction can be a help, and how and where to make it so that it may be of help. This means that we as adults have a great deal to learn. We can only help the child in his development by developing our own understanding, insight and self-control. (Joosten, A.M. 2018)
Observation plays a critical role here:
Any intervention on our part, whether it is to correct or for some other purpose, should be determined in relation to the child’s development, that means largely in relation to the child’s interest. So before deciding whether or not to correct mistakes the child may make, and when and how to correct them, we must examine the effect our intervention is likely to have on the child’s interest in the activity he is performing. If it is likely to diminish it, we do not correct, because interest is the life breath of development. Our first concern should be to see that the child conserves and increases his interest. (Joosten, A.M. 2018)
Elementary-aged children will sometimes demand that you tell them whether some piece of work is right or wrong. Depending upon your knowledge of the children, and your assessment of the impact that the news that the work is “not correct” might have on the children (and also the knowledge that the children expect authenticity from you) you may indeed decide to inform them that their work is not “correct”. Or, you may decide not to go that far, and soften the “blow” a little, noting that, “It doesn’t look quite right to me”... or ... “I think that there’s something wrong with this part here”... etc. Sometimes we may deflect even more directly, by having to hasten off to a promised presentation, which prevents us from looking the work over at that moment, and so on.
I recommend that, instead of “correcting” and marking up children’s work, we review their work, then turn it over and apply our initials and a date. Then, once the children have gone, we make some notes on what we observed, and later, we plan new presentations that are designed to remedy whatever misunderstanding or lack of knowledge the children’s work and errors have indicated.
This also serves us if a parent comes to us, concerned that work was left “uncorrected”. We can flip over the page in question and reveal our initials and the date. Then we can refer to our observation notes on that day, where a summary of the issues underlying the error/s was recorded. Then we can look at our weekly plan of presentations, where a presentation designed to attend to the reason for the error/s was scheduled (and then delivered). We might even review the children’s latest work with the parent, noting that the error had disappeared, or that now the “score” was 7 out of 9 (instead of 2 out of 9)!
This is a critical part of the puzzle that all too often is left out by teachers as they “correct” the work of children:
We must not limit our intervention to putting a stop to something negative. We must set in motion something positive ... Prohibiting what is bad and destructive is not enough. It should serve as a preparation to start something which is good and constructive. (Joosten, A.M. 2018)
Researchers also stress the importance of error analysis as a tool for the teacher (rather than what I fear is too often unintentionally, and with the children’s best interests at heart, nevertheless a blunt instrument). By analyzing the children’s errors, we can understand their thinking, and we can prepare appropriate and even individualized presentations for them.
When “correcting” becomes “error analysis”, it becomes a tool for us, it enhances our work with the children, and we are using this old idea of “correction” in a way that supports each child’s self construction (and our own).
Bransford, John D., Brown, Ann L. & Cocking, Rodney R. (Editors). (2000) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (Expanded Edition). National Academies Press, Washington DC
Joosten, A.M. (2018) Foundations of Montessori Pedagogy. Indian Montessori Foundation. India. https://montessori-india.org
McCabe, Don (1993).The Mechanics of English Spelling. AVKO Educational Research Foundation, Inc. Clio, MI
Montessori, Maria (1965) The Absorbent Mind. Robert Bentley Inc. Massachusetts