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Author: Kimberly D. Brostrom

“Error marks the place where education begins,” Mike Rose posits as one of the central themes of his book Lives on the Boundary. Error is a signal of stepping outside the confines of our comfortable knowledge base, of taking that risk and transcending what we already know; yet it is precisely error that is punished. If trial repeatedly ends up as punished error, the fear of error may hinder the curiosity proclivity of young children who then develop “error terror.” For those who are marginalized in society, the awareness of their likelihood for error, of the stereotypes associated with lack of ability, increases the propensity for mishaps in classroom performance.

Experts identify the importance of students thinking and acting like children when learning new material. Children have a natural inquisitiveness about their environments, which develops their cognitive abilities and capability for perspective taking. Very young children, when nurtured in positive environments, do not experience shame for trying new things—in learning how to pronounce a new word, for instance. They will try repeatedly until they get it right. They do not feel “stupid” for not knowing something. Children develop this incapacitating feeling through interactions with others. They begin to know ahead of time, even before trying something new, the impending judgments associated with a trial of their curiosity. There is something about the socialization process that pummels to a lifeless pulp this inclination to express our curiosity. Particularly for minorities, failure looms as a shadowy figure in the background.

Error terror becomes a debilitating reality, especially for the marginalized of society, as displayed in the multitude of research on the consequences of stereotype threat in and out of the classroom. African-Americans, for example, are well aware of the negative stereotypes that surround their academic performance, with the idea that others will see a failure as indication of an inherent and global personal flaw as opposed to simply something that occurs on a bad day. Similarly, compared to those from high socioeconomic status, those from a lower socioeconomic background have significantly poorer performance on tests that measure intellectual ability. Females are cognizant of the stereotypes surrounding a presumed lack of skill in the math and sciences, which impacts their performance on math tests. Error terror is especially commonplace for those who feel they are already behind and need to prove themselves to establish credibility. They are “IQ guilty” until proven innocent.      

Though the research results are in, a fatalistic mentality need not apply. In the classroom, there is a plethora of responses educators can take to combat this impact. For example, having a discussion emphasizing that intelligence is not “fixed” can decrease anxiety for those confronted with performance testing. Awareness of the existence of stereotype threat is important in inhibiting its influence. Also, affirming one's preexisting qualities and skills enhances overall confidence, as opposed to dwelling on flaws and foibles. A teacher can remind students that although portions of the coursework may be challenging, they are confident in their students' abilities.

More significantly, perhaps, error should be placed within a different framework in the classroom and in public discourse. Teachers can discuss error as an issue or a concept in and of itself, as opposed to error being exclusively something that ends up punished as result of poor performance. In relation to writing papers, for example, Mike Rose argues that “before we shake our heads at these errors, we should also consider the possibility that many such linguistic bungles are signs of growth, a stretching beyond what college freshman can comfortably do with written language.” (p. 188) Mistakes are emblematic of risk taking, of going outside the confines of a comfortable knowledge base. They are a reflection of the unalloyed curiosity proclivity.

As educators, it is important that we be reminded that there is tremendous value in thinking and acting like a child. Curiosity has yet to be dethroned, and the fear of error has yet to demarcate our receptiveness to learning. It isn't about getting the words just right; it is about being mindful of and open to the process, something that adults need to remember. Robert Fulghum, in his widely read Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, describes his own understanding of error: “Once I thought that getting the words just right was essential. Now I know the words will never be just right. A well-lived life is always under construction.” (p. 218) Error marks the place where not only education but life begins. Mishaps and all.

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