I have a maths iPad app that Joseph plays from time to time. This week I found him playing on it and finding it a bit too easy, so he started to deliberately give the wrong answers. He enjoyed seeing what happened when he did this for a while, and then moved on to another activity where he guessed the right answer rather than counting to find out what it was; he was never more than 1 or 2 away so he was estimating rather than guessing really. For a split second I felt frustrated that he wasn't playing 'properly' and then I realised that he was doing something far more important; making the game his own, testing how it responded and finding alternative ways of discovering the correct answer. The minute it became more challenging he became more determined to work out the problem and give the correct answer.
I learned a few things from watching Joseph play the maths game. Firstly, he wasn't afraid to get it wrong and try out different things just to see what happened. This feels like a positive approach to learning - feeling happy to try different things out rather than feeling afraid to give an answer because it might be the wrong one. I suspect that if too much value is placed being 'right' and giving the 'correct' answer, a child may become afraid to get things wrong and stifle their ability to test their own theories. They may even stop having theories, and prefer to wait for someone to give them the 'right' answer. A few days ago Joseph was looking in an atlas at a map of the world. He is fascinated by the way the earth looks from above, and the distinctions between land, sea, ice and desert. he found the UK and then said "...and this is London" pointing to Spain! I said "Thats actually another country called Spain" and Joseph replied "Yes Mummy but I don't know countries like you do, so I'm going to pretend its London!" He then pinpointed various London landmarks all over Europe. He didn't need the 'right' answer, he was testing out knowledge he already has and applying it to his growing understanding of maps, distance and location. His activity was a valuable one, and at this point in his life the confidence to apply his knowledge in this way is no doubt far more important than knowing where Spain is on a map of the world!
As I've navigated the world as an adult it has become increasingly clear how few situations can be solved with 'right' versus 'wrong' thinking or ideas. Life is full of grey areas, ambiguity and subjectivity and as I watched Joseph play I reflected on how problem solving in 'real world' situations is so often based on testing theories, estimating and using a gut feeling, rather than referring to external 'facts'. Parenthood has been a brilliant example of this for me; I have yet to find a 'right' way, other than the way that is right for this family. I hope to nurture a learning environment where the boys can become well equipped for problem solving in everyday situations, and navigating the grey areas of life. Allowing them to learn in an environment where there are not too many 'right' or 'wrong' answers feels like a good way to do this, which is why Michael Gove's plans for an exam system based on rote learning seems so utterly misguided to me. So much that I took on board as 'fact' in school is actually simply a theory, and there are things I needed to get wrong in order to find out what was right. There doesn't have to be an answer for everything....wondering is wonderful, and children are brilliant at it!
Joseph and I were walking the other day and he noticed a rainbow in the road. I told him how oil and water had mixed to produce this and he thought for a while as he walked and then said, "No Mummy, I think a piece of rainbow broke off and fell down from the sky!" Thank goodness he doesn't take my word for everything and is prepared to apply his own theory!
Long may it last!