Understanding Errors

Among materials Robert and I frequently use are folders made from pages taken from workbooks belonging to the series   Take It to Your Seat. We prepare each folder according to the instruction by cutting, gluing, laminating.  We  use one or two or three of those folders every day for many reasons:

1.To introduce a new skill/information and asses the level of help Robert would need to learn the skill presented in the folder.

2. For additional support.  For instance, when Robert was introduced to hemispheres through  different workbooks, the proper folder from the series provided visual support and allowed for extra practice.

3. To teach the skill intensively. We have just started working on three folders addressing making and reading graphs.  We will repeat the same tasks every day for two weeks. (I would not mind if Robert memorize the answers.  Memorizing is Robert’s weakness.  He would learn everything much quicker if his memory supported his learning. So ability to remember is a goal in itself. )

4. To escape the routine and incorporate  elements of play  in learning.

There is a problem, however, with using materials designed by somebody else while introducing a new concept, as those materials  don’t match exactly a particular student’s learning style and his “way of knowing things”.

One of the folders we made addressed categories of nouns: people, places, things.   When I was preparing this folder I knew that Robert had never before been taught those categories.   I knew I was entering unchartered waters but had an impression that the folder People, Places,Things was an easy and appropriate tool to introduce and practice  the task.  All pictures of people displayed community workers on their jobs and  all places were buildings (school, post office, garage, but no beach or park). What could be easier?  And yet as Robert was classifying, he made error after error by mixing people with places and things. The conclusion I drew was clear,  “Robert was not ready to learn to classify nouns.”  So I put the folder away.  I took it out a few years later (YES!, years) and noticed that Robert was still making the same errors.  But this time I grasped the essence of his mistakes.

Yes he mixed “a thing” with “a place” , and with “a person” .  But that thing was a school bus , that person was a bus driver, and that place was a school.  Robert was grouping objects that belonged together.  Categories were abstract and their force to attract particular pictures could not brake stronger bonds between “the bus driver and his school bus”.

The only way, I could think of,  to proceed with teaching  was to acknowledge the existence of those bonds and then let Robert break them.  So I placed on a separate piece of paper pictures of a mail man, a mail box, and a post office and  demonstrated to Robert that from there the pictures can go to separate categories.  Now, it was Robert’s  turn.  First,  I helped him gather pictures of a bus, a school, and a  bus driver  then I asked him to move the pictures to the appropriate categories.  That was easy.

After analyzing the way I taught Robert I realized that I didn’t analyze the logic behind Robert’s errors. Not all errors are random, and behind some of them lurks another stronger concept that controls responses. Understanding the concept behind the error is very important.   Sometimes it is impossible to find a reason for errors, but it is always a very good thing to try.

Moreover, I didn’t choose wisely the exemplars to be categorized. I used what I had in the folder instead of  thinking about possible implications for Robert of such selection.   For instance, it was not good to have only buildings as examples of places or only community workers as people . It certainly was a mistake to have objects related to each to each other as representing separate categories.

In the end, however, it was beneficial to use this folder. Have I had a perfect set of pictures, Robert’s grasp on categories might come sooner but  he still might remain confused about how to choose a key by which he was supposed to sort. The mistakes  Robert made allowed me to better understand the thinking behind his errors and adjust the way I presented the task.

That is why I frequently use different curricula addressing the same topic.   Small differences in wording or in presentation can reveal  cracks in understanding of the concept.  Such cracks should be remedied as soon as they are discovered.

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