"Wait - before I write this down, is that the right answer?"
"I wrote the wrong answer, now I have to do it again."
"I'm not writing it if I might be wrong."
I can't help it. Any time I'm met with a sentence like those my face becomes one of bewilderment. Students who are so afraid of being wrong they would rather write nothing. We see the same thing in exams - whole sections left blank rather than being attempted. Why? They might be wrong, they say! It isn't just a few students here or there, this is an epidemic! My own brother, still in secondary school himself, is the exact same. Why are we so afraid to be wrong?
The curious thing is that everyone knows we learn from our mistakes. It sounds like a cliché, but something only becomes a cliché when it's true. Not just in school but in life, it takes our mistakes and setbacks to show us how to move on in life. A mistake in a job interview can lead to us reviewing how we respond to questions and how we can improve. A broken off relationship can teach us how to have better relationships in the future. Accidentally offending someone can mean gaining a better understanding of that person by talking to them. Mistakes happen all the time - yesterday I hit my leg on a wooden box while moving something, and it's left me remembering to take more care looking where I'm going (and a sore leg). We all know that we learn from our mistakes, so why are we so afraid to make any?
We tend to have an odd obsession with perfection. Countless revision guides, study courses, even this website, exist to help students reach their potential and write "perfect" answers that will get them full marks. We give a lot of praise to the student who got all As, but perhaps less to the student who got mostly Cs but worked really hard for that. Teachers are the same - what teacher doesn't want to be considered extremely good at what they do? It's especially noticeable when in the H.Dip, you often find yourself caught up in trying to prepare perfect lessons, keeping a perfect file, writing perfect reflections, and generally being seen as a perfect teacher... even though you're just beginning! (I was as guilty of this as anyone else). Teachers also have to contend with the importance placed on exam results - a teacher with generally good exam results will be looked on more favourably than a teacher who hasn't.
Is this a fair way to judge either students or teachers? No, not really. The student who got an A in English may have worked very hard for it or they may just have had a natural aptitude for the subject and achieved their result with ease. It's to be celebrated either way of course, but that C student who strove to achieve that result will still end up treated as if he or she didn't try hard enough. We celebrate those who achieve the full number of points in the exams - and they should be celebrated for their work - but we can't forget those who might not have come anywhere near 600 points but still put in a huge amount of dedication, work and effort. Why not celebrate them too?
It's true of course that we do in school, whether we're students or teachers, all leads up to exams. Students in First Year begin a journey that will culminate in the Junior Cert and then the Leaving Cert. Throughout that journey, they hear a huge amount, every day, about those destinations. The all-important, all-consuming destinations. But what about the journey? Why judge students primarily on their performance as they cross the finish line, without taking into account how the journey has been for them?
We're all only human. We will all make mistakes throughout our entire lives, there's no way at all we can avoid that. I would much rather teach a class of humans who get things wrong sometimes, than teach a class of robots who are always right and have perfect answers all the time. Nobody really learns in that environment.
The new Junior Cycle reforms may go some way towards alleviating this issue, but it will be some time yet before our young people feel comfortable enough, together, to be able to explore their subjects and their work without first needing to know if they're "right". It's our jobs as teachers to help them to realise that really, no matter where they are in their educational journey, it's perfectly fine to be "wrong".