“Our Montessori-Inspired Approach: Why We Focus On Accuracy Rather Than Error”

By: Tyler Jennings

A core concept in Montessori philosophy, The Control of Error is premised on the belief that children will learn far more from discovering, grappling with, and revising their own errors than if an adult immediately points them out.

In a more classical Montessori approach, which we use in our Early Childhood classrooms, the materials themselves hold The Control of Error.  For instance, as the Montessori student learns about volume, she must place variously sized wooden cylinders into corresponding depressions in a wood panel; if she places a given cylinder into a depression that is too voluminous, she will note the extra space between them and correct herself.

In our Montessori-inspired Elementary program, we apply this same belief in innovative ways--not only in concrete materials, but also in our design of learning tasks and collaborative learning structures.

Why we value The Control of Error.  When a child negotiates his own errors, he engages in productive struggle, which means that he grapples with the right degree of challenge for him.  This is the very basis for deep learning.  He also develops greater awareness of himself as a learner, thinker, and worker, and an ability to metacognate about the learning process.  To vest The Control of Error entirely in the adult, as in traditional schools, is to rob the child of these opportunities that are in fact core to learning.

When we involve the child in the revision of her own thinking, we guide her to focus on the work process and even to understand, on a metacognitive level, that her own learning primarily occurs there—not just at the end.  When a child who lives the process encounters an error, she is more likely to explore why it occurred, overcome it independently, and derive both pleasure and enduring understandings from doing so.  In essence, she is more likely to strive for accuracy.

By contrast, when a teacher immediately identifies errors for the students, it can profoundly alter those students’ priorities in school, their relationship to learning, and the climate of the classroom.  Rather than focus on the work process, they may fixate on the teacher’s approval and on their status in the class, neither of which are actually related to learning.  In the moment that the teacher corrects a student, that student then very likely dwells in the state of having been wrong and may not move beyond it.

At Caedmon, we develop learning communities where children can strive for accuracy rather than dwell in the state of having been wrong. That is why we say that, here, we focus on accuracy over error.

How do we apply The Control of Error in our Elementary classrooms?

Selection and design of tasks. When children are given meaningful contexts for their work, they can check the reasonableness and accuracy of their thinking against a larger framework of logic, experience, and knowledge.  A young author who writes for an authentic, meaningful audience is more likely to reconsider an unsubstantiated argument, an outlandish plot twist, or a mismatched use of voice or style.  A young mathematician who solves a problem for an authentic, meaningful situation is more likely to discover an unreasonable solution, for they will see that it is unreasonable for that situation and not only for an abstract set of numbers.  By designing and selecting tasks that require the use of reasoning, we in fact create a Control for Error.  The Control for Error, in this case, exists in the transaction between the parameters of a task and a child’s higher order thinking.

As experts in childhood learning, our teachers often can predict many of the misconceptions that children will encounter and subsequently overturn during the learning process.  These misconceptions, or “errors,” are actually well worth making, provided that we expertly guide each student to learn from them.  To that end, we design and select tasks that deliberately lead students through a process of naming and disproving misconceptions, on their path to refined thinking and confident solutions.

Collaborative learning structures.  One of the most psychologically difficult acts that an excellent teacher must undertake is to allow a student’s incorrect thinking to stand, temporarily, uncorrected--and not only allow it to stand, but to record or model it for the other students’ consideration.  Though of course the teacher could supply the class with the accurate solution at any time, Caedmon’s teachers know the immense power of a collective, student-led Control for Error.  Our teachers actively create this Control for Error by developing close-knit learning communities and by equipping the students with the awareness and techniques needed to hold one another accountable for accurate thought.  They learn to respectfully press one another for clarity, evidence, and ultimately, understanding.

And here is what the students stand to gain: 1.) The class remains invested and attentive, rather than tuning out when a peer is speaking, because they sense a collective responsibility to accuracy.  2.) The teacher will require the class to prove their revision, which means that they must deeply understand why the misconception or error occurred and to extract learning from it.  3.) The class must support each other to grapple with the error and correct it. The child who originated the misconception does not suffer emotionally because she does not bear the responsibility to accuracy alone.  If accountability is collective, an individual child is more likely to feel supported by her peers throughout the learning process.

It is quite a thing to behold: awareness, deeper understanding, and a sense of responsibility ripple through the group.  This is what learning looks like when the children are personally invested in every area of their learning.  This is what it looks like when our children strive for accuracy.