Friday, 29 May 2015

Should rubbers or erasers be banned in schools? A positive reply to Guy Caxton's thoughts

In an article in May 2015, a cognitive scientist argued that rubbers (erasers) should be banned from the class room.

As reported by the Daily Telegraph: "Guy Claxton, visiting professor at Kings College London, has sparked arguments with his comments that the humble eraser is "an instrument of the devil".
Rubbers create "a culture of shame about error. It's a way of lying to the world, which says 'I didn't make a mistake. I got it right first time.'" It is better, Claxton argues, to embrace mistakes, because that's what happens in the real world...“Out in the big wide world nobody is going to be following you around, marking your work, organising your time for you, in the 21st century you are going to be the designer, the architect, the curator of your own learning.”

It's an interesting argument. As a libertarian, I'm not keen on the word "banning"  - persuasion based on rational argument is better for us to prosper and learn from our mistakes; or perhaps removing from sight those things which handicap us (call it banning if you will for media purposes - but it's a harsh term that echoes totalitarian or theocratic regimes).

Erasers (and delete buttons) have a role in helping to keep our work neat, but I do like Dr Claxton's philosophy - if we provide children with certain tools, they will use them. Are the tools appropriate though? Sometimes yes, sometimes no - along the inappropriate ones I'd argue are game consoles and smart phones and tvs in the bedroom: if you provide them, they will be used. And then you'll slowly create a zombie who "struggles with English" as I often hear from parents. Funny that.

Now rubbers...

In my private practice of working with students of all ages and abilities, I tend to keep the rubber at more than the pupil's arms length or hide it altogether for the young pupils (8-10) who tend to reach for the rubber and enthusiastically make a rubbery mess of their work, often spending more time rubbing out than thinking about the problem or spelling they were working on. The time spent rubbing out rather than just putting a line through it is a waste of time. It also makes a mess. Nonetheless, I agree with Claxton that there's something deeper going on with the eraser though: a covering up of our errors is potentially dangerous habit - one that leans into perfectionism, authoritarianism and narcissistic neuroses underpinned by a belief in infallibility.

(Image - Dr Alex Moseley; Southwell, Notts, private tuition for maths with Classical Foundations: the GCSE student is to my right, the eraser is behind the stapler, out of her sight. This was not set up - I instinctively 'hide it' before lessons).

Why not use the rubber to get rid of mistakes?

Well, it's good to know we've made a mistake - whether it's in forming our letters when we're young or solving an algorithm (a series of logical steps - a word, by the way, that the government thinks all children should know for some reason. I'd prefer then to know 'critical reasoning'...). Seeing our mistakes in retrospect shows where we went wrong and highlights the false paths - and the improvements we're making.

That's life - it's a series of challenges and wrong turnings and constant learning!

Indeed, showing the path of trial and improvement is an excellent way of teaching ourselves that sometimes we don't get things right - reaching for the eraser or dumping that file can be a rejection of the struggle as if the history (personal or academic) should be obliterated. Life is a struggle and a daily challenge (amidst our habits of things we do seem to be getting right) and we need to see the results as they unfold rather than reject them.

Hopefully, gone are the days when teachers pick up a piece of work and rip it to shreds in front of the pupil and the class. (Hmm, I have heard of instances though - what does that say to the pupil?)

Failing forward (the title of a book by John Maxwell) emphasises the forward movement of learning with its trips and falls and dead ends. We learn to walk by toddling and falling over lots until we get it. We learn to ride a bike by falling off before gradually learning a sense of balance. These things take time and patience - and plenty of mistakes along the way.

When working alongside a higher GCSE maths student, sometimes I go down the wrong logical path - it's good for the pupil to see that that the path didn't work out. I've had a couple of students remark, "Hey, you're my tutor, shouldn't you get this right...?" implying that if the tutor/teacher can't get it right, how are they supposed to learn.

Interesting implications for totalitarian thinking - that we acculturate our children into accepting the perfect dogma of the teacher. Frightening even, but it does explain why later a lot of pupils "don't know what to do in life." Cast adrift in a world of trial and error, they've been conditioned not to make mistakes. Creative and balanced minds this does not make. 

When I get something wrong, I laugh and say, "Well, that didn't, let's see what direction we could try you see that sometimes in life we don't get the answer first time?" Or some such message to provoke their mind a little.

I've also noted in our 11+ grammar school training that some pupils are indeed keen to remove any evidence of making a mistake. After getting something wrong, they rub it out, correct it and then say, "See, I got that right." This, I think, is the essence of Dr Claxton's point - too concerned with getting things right, they're not keen to accept that they can get things wrong. They are often relatively more stressed pupils to work with. "It's okay to get it wrong," I comment. Sometimes they shake their head.

I wonder what's going on in the home as well as in the school.

Now that leads to a connection I may be spotting in Dr Claxton's comments that the eraser is "the instrument of the devil."

Having recently read M Scott Peck's The People of the Lie, I saw a similarity in Dr Claxton's use of "the devil" with the psychology of not wanting to get things right of wanting everything to be perfect first time. This, Peck argues, is symptomatic of the psychology of evil: of keeping up appearances even though we are killing our own or our children's spirit. Quickly obliterating the mistake keeps up the appearance of invincibility and godlike omniscience, which, whatever theology you follow, we do not possess as mortals. Herein lies much evil, muses Peck.

 Narciciss at the pool falls in love with himself. The eraser would be his tool.

It's not just erasers though.

Many teachers - my pupils inform me - just read out the answers.

They don't show the children the working out or that they themselves can make mistakes. Accordingly, in the children's minds the answer is either right or its wrong - and sometimes in primary tests there's room to argue with the examiner or produce a different answer, but the answer that's given in the books must be right it is assumed.

It's somewhat reminiscent of Asch's peer group pressure study when the group chose the wrong answer to a simple questions about line length with the participant generally caving in to their choice rather than what he could see was right. If the teacher says it's right - it's right. Period. I'm having an on-going 'banter-argument' with a local primary teacher through a pupil; she insists that you can't have a triangle with more than 180 degrees internally. Yes you can if you break away from Euclidean two-dimensional space. Apparently she insists that I'm wrong - yet, she seems never to have looked it up - even googled it. Now that can be considered narcissistic...or dogmatic.

Here's a short video on taking us out of our flatlandish perspective of life and reality. All is not what it seems - and our path to understanding more is and always will be through trial and error / improvement: sometimes by ditching our mistakes, sometimes by reviewing the mistakes we made and finding something interesting in them: if we've rubbed them out - we would never know where it could have taken us. 

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