Questions Become Answers; Failure Becomes Success

We, as a society, program students that failure is not an option.  Good grades are a must to get into a good college.  A good college is a must to eventually have a good career.  A good career is a must in order to make good money.  And so on, and so forth.

I’m not denying that these are all important steps and should be the steps for most students… What’s important to point out, however, is that these are the BIG STEPS, in the overall BIG PICTURE of life.  There are many little steps in between that do not follow the same pattern of constant success.


Did you ever stop to think about:

The number of times a business owner fails before owning a successful business?

How many drawings an architect renders before creating a successful space?

How many times an infant falls before he/she can walk?

How often a student should actually fail before getting the correct answer?

Failure is Preferred

Not many people are successful on the first try.  In fact, I think it might actually be a bad thing if they are.

The learning process occurs from failure.  Sure, a student might pick up on the steps and mimic them exactly, but was the concept actually learned?  Was there a connection actually made within that student’s brain to other past learned experiences?

It’s difficult to bridge two concepts when steps are merely mimicked.  However, when I student fails, repeatedly, and then finally starts to see the light, THAT is when true learning happens.

True Learning

But how does an educator bring out “true learning” and not just “watch and repeat”?

When working with a student one-on-one, you shouldn’t be “teaching” 100% of the time.  I don’t even think you should be “teaching” the majority of the time!

Let the student go!  Ask questions.  Let the student explain.

Don’t Correct Immediately

If you’re watching a student work and, step 1 is ok, step 2 is ok, and then step 3 they made a mistake [whatever that mistake is], DO NOT JUMP IN AND CORRECT IT!  If you jump in the instant the student makes a mistake, this actually hurts the student’s learning process.  If the student made a mistake in the first place, it means that there is a connection in their brain of how they made that mistake… it’s a “wrong” connection, but nevertheless, it is in there and we need to figure out what that strange connection is.  So, if you correct the mistake the instant they make it, you’re basically blowing up that bridge without understanding how it was built.  What’s the point of that?

Instead, let the student keep going with the work as you carefully watch that they are doing.  If you notice they make a mistake, continue watching!  Most students’ work pace starts to slow down because they are slowly realizing that something doesn’t feel right… then perhaps around step 5 or so, they usually realize their own mistake and they will go back and fix it!  This might not sound like much, but that instant when a student corrects himself/herself is SUPER exciting.  To self-check, and self-correct is pretty difficult and is really amazing progress!

What this means is that the “wrong bridge” [the one most teachers try to “blow up” before the student even gets there] was left standing in order to understand.  Students then were set out into the world to make their own decisions… The student approaches the “wrong bridge”, starts to cross it because it is comfortable and familiar, then realizes it is the wrong choice, STEPS BACK, still sees the an obstacle in front of him/her, and instead of giving up and asking for help, decides to collect twigs and make a new bridge!


Now You’re Needed

This is the point where you, the educator, SHOULD jump in… after the point where they realize they made a mistake, then try to correct themselves but start to stumble a bit… that’s exactly the point where you should help.

How to Help

  1. By re-teaching the proper steps
  2. By questioning [then re-teaching]

More often than not, I question my students about why they chose a certain method…

Behold the Power of Questioning

A good educator should spend more time asking questions than lecturing.  However, questioning is not as easy as you might think.  Timing, depth, wording, etc. all impact the learning process.

For example: Timing.  If you ask a question the instant a student makes a mistake, that’s basically the same thing as telling the student he/she is wrong.  Just because it was in the form of a question, doesn’t make it better.  Instead, wait until the student starts to slow their work pace down or perhaps just a few steps afterwards [so that they’re not too far off], and ask the student to explain what he/she did so far.

Ask questions to correct steps as well as to incorrect steps!  This way, the student doesn’t associate questioning with being “wrong.”  Instead, it merely becomes “I did work, now I explain my work.”

I can’t emphasize how important this is.  If you only question when a student is incorrect, then questions start to become negative… If you do this, as soon as you start to ask a question, then a student will automatically assume they are wrong and not even give it too much thought beyond that.

On the other hand, if you ask questions about everything, even correct problems, something amazing happens…  Not only will questions not have a negative connotation, but students will start to become more confident with their work.  If they have to justify their work even when it is correct, they will start to stand behind what they believe and defend it.

This is quite powerful, wouldn’t you say?  Just by asking more questions, at the right time, you can transform a student from being timid and second guessing everything to a student that is confident and stands behind what he/she believes.

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