I got a pleasant but agitated letter from an intelligent and highly trained psychologist who had heard my talk. How, she demanded, could children possibly learn unless we corrected all their mistakes? Wasn’t that our responsibility, our duty? I wrote a long reply, repeating my point and telling still more stories about children correcting their own mistakes. But she seems to be as far from understanding me as ever. It is almost as if she cannot hear what I am saying. This is natural enough. Anyone who makes it his life work to help other people may come to believe that they cannot get along without him, and may not want to hear evidence that they can, all too often, stand on their own feet. Many people seem to have built their lives around the notion that they are in some way indispensable to children, and to question this is to attack the very center of their being.

I would have been less tempted to correct this child’s little mistake had I not, like so may adults, been under the spell of the Bad Habit Theory of Learning. This tells us that every time a child makes a mistake, in speaking, reading, or whatever, we must instantly correct it, lest it freeze into a “bad habit”, impossible to correct. The theory is simply untrue. Most of the many things children learn – to walk, talk, read, write, etc. – they learn by trying to do them, making mistakes, and then correcting the mistakes. They learn by what mathematicians call “successive approximations”; that is, they do something, compare the result with the desired goal (doing it the way bigger people do it), see some of the differences (their mistakes), and try to reduce these differences (correct their mistakes). All children do this, and all are good at it; even in the homes of the busiest mistake-correctors, the children themselves correct many more mistakes than are pointed out to them.

One of the wittiest and truest remarks I have ever heard about education was made not long ago by a Catholic educator, a veteran of many years of teaching and teacher training. He was talking to a group of Catholic high school superintendents about handling your teachers, and was urging them not to be too quick to point out and correct mistakes that the teachers, given a little time, might see and correct themselves. “A word to the wise,” he said slowly, shaking an emphatic finger, “is infuriating.” We all laughed, because he has fooled us, and because he was so right. Infuriating is just what it is. We all know the kind of person who is quick to interrupt whatever we are saying to correct some unimportant mistake. Strangling seems much too good for him. […] A word to the wise, or even the unwise, is infuriating because it is insulting. When we teach without being asked, we are saying, in effect, “You’re not smart enough to know that you should know this, and not smart enough to learn it.”

What we must remember about this ability of children to become aware of mistakes, to find and correct them, is that it takes time to work, and that under pressure and anxiety it does not work at all. But at school we almost never give it the time. When a child at school makes a mistake, say, in reading aloud in a reading group, he gets an instant signal from the environment. […] At any rate, something will happen to tell the child, not only that he goofed, but that everyone around him knows he goofed. Like almost anyone in this situation, he will feel great shame and embarrassment, enough to paralyze his thinking. Even if he is confident enough to keep some presence of mind in the face of this public failure, he will not be given time to seek out, find, and correct his mistake. For teachers not only like right answers, they like them right away. If a child can’t correct his mistake immediately, someone else will correct it for him.

The result of this is a great loss. The more a child uses his sense of consistency, of things fitting together and making sense, to find and correct his own mistakes, the more he will feel that his way of using his mind works, and the better he will get at it. He will feel more and more that he can figure out for himself, at least much of the time, which answers make sense and which do nt. But if, as usually happens, we point out all his mistakes as soon as he makes them, and even worse, correct them for him, his self-checking and self-correcting skill will not develop, will die out. He will cease to feel that he has it, or ever had it, or ever could have it. He will become like the fifth-graders I knew – many of them “successful” students – who used to bring me papers and say, “Is it right?” and when I said, “What do you think?” look at me as if I were crazy. What did they think? What did what they thought have to do with what was right? Right was what the teacher said was right, whatever that was.