Years ago, when I first started observing classrooms, I was drawn to a simple, but pervasive interaction. A teacher would ask a question, call on a child to answer it and the child would be unable to come up with a satisfactory response. The pain and humiliation that the children experienced were palpable.
I am not referring here to occasional mistakes. Those are an unavoidable part of the learning process. But for many children, the mistakes are frequent. In that situation, they assume a different and pernicious role. Then a multi-dimensional force takes hold that includes a sense of helplessness, the anxiety of being exposed and the repeated shame of making mistakes in front of others – including powerful authority figures and one’s peers. I chose to call this force error dynamics .
Children are keenly aware of what is happening. That’s only reasonable. Think back to your experiences in the classroom when you did not know the answer and prayed the teacher would not call on you. Remarkably, that fear lingers on– for years after our school days are distant memories. It’s why adults avoid sitting in the first row in a lecture hall-they want to make sure that just in case the speaker asks a question, they are not the ones who might be called on to answer.
Amazingly, this force goes virtually unrecognized by both teachers and parents. It is a potent force that steadily erodes the teaching-learning process and yet it goes virtually unnoticed by the adults who are in charge of the process.
Children who are experiencing difficulties in reading are only too familiar with error dynamics. For reasons that have yet to be explained, all teaching tasks are set out on the assumption that the children will do them correctly. Yet, the seemingly simple act of asking a child to read a page aloud can often result in an error rate of 30% or higher. For the child, the experience is not an opportunity to rehearse reading skills; instead, it is proof that reading is never to be. It’s part of the reason why so many children readily say that they “hate reading.”
If teaching is to be successful, it is vital that the instruction be organized so that (a) the rate of error is reduced and (b) when errors do occur, they can be addressed effectively. The control and handling of error is a major component of all the reading programs I design.