Getting It Right

How do you know you’ve performed a task correctly? What does it take to be able to say, “That went well”, or “I could have done better”?

As adults, we self-correct constantly and pretty much unconsciously: speeding up our work so we can be ready for that 3pm meeting, putting some broccoli back into the bag if we accidentally take out too much, stabilizing our overfull mug of coffee as we walk across the room.  We’re good at self-correction; we’ve had a lot of practice.

The ability to accurately evaluate one’s performance is critical to self-correction, and we foster this ability in Montessori. The feedback loop of performance – self-evaluation – self-correction is built into the environment, the materials, and the atmosphere. We offer plenty of opportunities for children to know if they did something correctly or incorrectly, and in either case, it’s no big deal. You got it right? Great. You got it wrong? Great. If it’s the former, you move on. If it’s the latter, you try again. Either way, learning will occur.

Even very young children in Montessori environments work with materials that provide clear yet neutral feedback. We call this control of error. It’s the material that says, “Hey, it looks like you made a mistake. Want to try again?” This liberates the relationship between the child and the teacher, relieving the guide of having to be the finger-wagging voice of correction. Neutrality’s important; we all know the resentful feeling we get when someone says, “See? I told you so!”, or “I told you to do it the other way! That’s what you get!” The Montessori materials, so simple and elegant and lovely, give feedback without blame, allowing children to know right away if a correction is needed. If friendliness with error has been fostered, children will joyfully persevere with an activity until they get it right.

The Cylinder Blocks are a Montessori material with very obvious control of error. Essentially, each Cylinder Block is a puzzle: a narrow wooden block with precisely-cut apertures drilled along its length into which fit corresponding wooden cylinders, each with a knob on top. There are four kinds of Cylinder Block, which increase in difficulty, but they are all played the same way: you remove the knobbed cylinders one by one, mix them up, and then put them back in the correct holes again. Easy for an adult, harder if you’re two and a half.

Little children who do this for the first time almost always get it wrong, and in this case “wrong” means that one or more cylinders don’t fit. What we hope to see is the child pulling them out and trying again. And again, and again. Wrong… right… we don’t care. What’s important is an atmosphere that sanctifies error as an invaluable learning tool, rather than as a reason to feel ashamed. “Error is my friend” we say in Montessori, and we really mean it.

What would drive a child want to repeat the Cylinder Block puzzle until they get it right? Well, we know that humans have a tendency to want to get things right. It’s just there, inside us. In the Montessori theory we call it the Human Tendency for Exactness and Precision. Regardless of what you call it, in the end it boils down to the fact that humans, in general, just like to get things right. Children do, too. At least they do if they’ve grown up without blame and guilt attached to making mistakes.

This video, taken at MINW in mid-2012, shows how a toddler reacts to his mistakes when friendliness with error has been encouraged. Malaika, a MINW Primary graduate, visited the training center with her little guy, Edison, then almost 17 months old. At this point in the video, Edison has been playing with the Cylinder Block for about ten minutes already, but he’s gotten to the point where he can’t fit all the cylinders into the block. This means that he’s misplaced one or more of the cylinders (which you can see in the video). Patiently, without frustration and without any adult encouragement or intervention, he fixes the puzzle until it’s correct. This kind of patient, dogged persistence is only possible if the child knows how to self-correct, be it with the Cylinder Blocks, or a written word, or a math problem.

Outside of a formal Montessori setting, adults can help children learn self-correction by giving neutral, useful feedback. Here’s an example: a child carries full a glass of water by herself without spilling any. Instead of saying “Good job carrying the glass!” which doesn’t give any specifically useful feedback, the adult could say, “You carried that glass so carefully, without spilling a single drop!” Spilling, in this case, would indicate a less-than-successful performance. By not spilling, the performance was successful. In the future the child can use that piece of information – not spilling as an indicator of success – to evaluate her own performance.

Another advantage of this kind of feedback is that it allows the child to rely on herself for good feelings about her performance, rather than on external praise from an adult. She concentrates and tries because it makes her feel good, because she wants to feel that satisfaction that comes from within. This is where real, deep self-esteem is born.  Intrinsic motivation is a much more powerful driving force than extrinsic motivations such as praise, rewards, and so on. As Former Education Secretary Terrel Bell stated, “There are three things to remember about education. The first is motivation. The second one is motivation. The third one is motivation.”

When a learner can't accurately assess his or her own performance, motivation goes down. It's hard to feel motivated to correct a mistake if you don't know what you did wrong. In a similar vein, inaccurate feedback from the adult can lead a child to believe they are capable and knowledgeable, when in fact the reverse is true. This has led to the recent backlash against the omnipresent “Good job!” culture that pervades modern parenting and child care. If a child gets continual praise indicating that they’re doing a good job regardless of their actual performance, then they will develop an inflated and inaccurate sense of their own abilities. What an awful shock to discover that, quite contrary to all the praise and feedback you’ve gotten throughout life, that your abilities are in fact quite run of the mill. What immense disillusionment must result when children or young adults come to realize they’re not as capable as adults have led them to believe. This is why accurate feedback – rather than blanket praise – is actually better for a child’s self-esteem in the long run. It allows them to really know if they’re doing something well or not. This requires more work from us adults. It forces us to choose our words with more care and consider the long-term consequences of giving a child constant and inflated praise.

In environments where friendliness with error is encouraged, children are able to fine-tune their ability to accurately evaluate their own performance: I carried that glass of water without spilling a drop; I didn’t fit all the Cylinders into the correct holes; I wrote so clearly that others could easily read my handwriting. This feedback loop of 

performance – self-evaluation – self-correction

 can be assisted by adults giving the right kind of feedback, and then only when necessary. If the motivation to persevere comes from within the child, and not from a desire to please the adult or receive a reward, then real self-esteem is built, along with the ability to self-correct without shame. In a complicated world full of inaccurate and often conflicting messages, the Montessori approach is one way to ensure that the child’s internal compass is the most sure and steady of all their guides.


Posted on April 26, 2013 and filed under Resources.