Choice and Learning, Part II: The Power of the Wrong Choice... and the Right Adult Involvement

In a previous blog, I shared my belief that:

  • The best education equips students with the necessary skills, habits, and values to make the best choices (academic or otherwise), both now and in the future.
  • The best way to equip students isn’t simply to lecture them about the skills, habits, and values they ought to have for the choices they’ll someday face, but instead to offer them real opportunities to make real choices… including incorrect choices.

Picking up from there…

Some of our best learning comes not just from having the freedom to make choices, but from the moments when with that freedom we end up making the wrong choices.  Very rarely when we’re in the midst of making the choice do we actually believe that it’s the wrong choice, of course.  Normally, we only realize our mistake when we experience some kind of negative consequences of our choice.  Those consequences (normally) are what motivate us to make a different choice in the future… i.e., learning.

A child learning to read guesses incorrectly at a word or chooses an incorrect strategy, and it turns out the word isn’t what they thought it was.  They’ll only realize this after reading the whole sentence (or more), when they’re confused and things aren’t making sense.  The “consequence” for their incorrect choice was confusion or misunderstanding.  To resolve the confusion, they need to go back to the beginning, choose a different strategy, choose a new word, etc., and determine if the consequences for that new choice are more favorable.  If you’ve ever read with a younger child, you know it often takes lots of practice (i.e., repeated mistakes, followed by a parent or teacher’s guidance: “No, wait… what is that word, again?  Remember—tap it out…”).  And in this example and many others, it takes an adult checking to see if they understand what they’re reading, helping to be certain they realize when they’ve chosen the incorrect word or strategy so they choose differently in the future. 

Sometimes, an adult is also needed to tip the scales in the student’s "mental cost-benefit analysis" when they’re weighing the consequences of sticking with the wrong choice vs. the extra work and time required to go back and choose differently.  There's no way around it: learning takes work and time.  Without adult involvement, the student may decide being confused is easier and faster than learning.  A beginning musician is told she must practice her instrument before going outside to play.  Without close adult supervision, she very well may follow directions, playing her instrument for a few minutes with incorrect notes, rhythms, and/or hand position, etc., and then hurry outside to play.

Effective education balances appropriate adult involvement with giving children the freedom to make both right and wrong choices.  That young musician must be given the freedom to choose the notes, tempos, etc., but without someone ensuring she’s appropriately focused and reaffirming what she does right and pointing out where she’s made incorrect choices, she may never learn and improve.  She needs a parent or teacher to say, “No, wait…play that last measure again.  Remember—you have to count it out…” 

But it's also equally true that the musician will never learn to play if the adult plays the instrument for her (though it most certainly would get her outside faster and may be much more efficient for the adult).  Or, considering the earlier example: the child will never learn to read if the adult reads everything for him (though the child may find that to be more enjoyable, less work, and with less confusion).

How do we adults navigate that precarious balance between over-involvement and being too hands off as we help our children learn?  Surprisingly, nobody has ever asked me that question directly... but I've come to realize it's actually the unspoken root of most of the parent stress, teacher concerns, and parent-school conflicts I've tried to navigate over the years.  In my next blog, I'll share a classic case study on it: the science project.  Stay tuned!


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