Good Mistakes

Sometimes students ask questions so good that they may not realize just how good they are. A few years ago a young woman in a freshmen seminar asked me whether a wrong answer could ever get an A. I had to think about it for a moment before I said, "It could in my class."

A biology prof who overheard this was appalled, but he really shouldn't have been. If you can sort right answers into gradations of A, B, C and D, then certainly you can do the same for wrong answers. Some mistakes are really, really good. More importantly, they tell me a lot about the quality of thinking that's going on.

Anyone who has taught for a while has had the experience of asking a question and hearing one's own words parroted back in the answer. The answer may be right, but most professors hate it because it usually indicates that very little thinking has taken place. Now contrast this with the following example: when my son was three or so I overheard him explaining to his fellow pre-schooler why leaves drop from the trees in winter and return in spring. He had watched something about bears, so he told his friend that the trees liked to sleep through the winter. Even though his idea was not exactly right, some really good thinking went into that answer.

He had to take a concept learned in one context, see its similarity to another, and then formulate a theory that trees also hibernate in winter. What's key here is that he had to relate this new idea to one he already possessed. Indeed, new understanding only arises because we have bumped into something unfamiliar and are trying to use what we know to establish a conceptual link to it. All of us experience this whenever we look up a word in the dictionary. We may not know what the word means, but we know it's a word; and the only way we can understand it is to link it to a term we already know.

This kind of connecting (sometimes brilliant, sometimes not) happens all the time in a college classroom. Students are often trying to link new ideas to something they already know. In my Humanities class, for example, I have students write an early paper in which they record their initial impressions of the subject we will be covering in the following weeks. One student wrote that she knew nothing about the Baroque period in art and architecture other than that the word itself reminded her of barbecue. In other words, the only thing she had in her experience to connect with this new term was the sound of the word itself.

On a more sophisticated level, I once had a student who wrote an essay arguing that Margaret Atwood had written an anti-abortion novel. I thought this unlikely, but the thinking and mining of the text to support her thesis were amazing. A lot of really good intellectual effort went into her paper, so I gave her an A and suggested she might want to read what other critics had said about the book.

The goal of education should be more than simply getting right answers. That's important, of course, but we should also get students to build more and more connections between new stuff and stuff they already know. And the more they know, the more connections they can make. A lot of these connections will be half-baked and some even flat-out wrong, but it takes real thinking to make and articulate them so they are understood, which is a lot more thinking than the student parroting back a right answer is doing.


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