Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!

One of my science teacher heroines is Ms. Frizzle from the magic school bus. Remember her teaching philosophy?

I need a poster of this in my room so I can point to it when my students ask their favorite question; “is this right?” This question hurts my soul for a few reasons…

1. Students just want a yes or no answer

2. There is no emphasis on the process, just the answer

3. The question is usually accompanied by the statement “I don’t want to be wrong”

Somewhere along the way we taught students that it is not okay to be wrong. At some point we told students that the process doesn’t matter, you only get credit for the final answer. Most importantly, we taught students that it is not okay to make mistakes. Ms. Frizzle would be seriously disappointed.

So how do I combat this in my classroom? I use two tools:

1) Modeling Instruction

2) Standards-Based Grading

Modeling instruction helps me battle the dreaded “is this right?” question by simply never answering it. I reply to every question with another question. I always start with “I don’t know, what do you think?” so the student is forced to explain his or her reasoning. If there are blatant errors, I may pinpoint a particular spot and ask “why did you do this?” If there are no errors I might ask “are you confident in your reasoning?” I never give a “yes” or “no” answer.

Standards-based grading allows students to make mistakes on assessments and be given a second chance… and a third chance…. and a fourth chance…. and even a twentieth chance if it comes to it! Students are assessed multiple times on a single learning target and always have the opportunity to initiate their own reassessments. Students are not penalized for learning at different paces as long as they learn. That is the objective after all.

These two strategies together have helped shift the culture in my classroom from one of rote memorization to genuine learning. Do students still ask “is this right?” Of course they do. Now I just sit back and smile as another student in the room answers before I can, “I don’t know, what do you think?”

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