The development of a young child is facilitated by the absorbent mind and unique periods of sensitivity to the environment that nurture skills, knowledge and understanding of the material, social, natural and social worlds in which the child participates. It is a distinctive flow of relationships and experiences of which the young child becomes increasingly conscious over time. This conscious appreciation of things that work and things that don’t work allow the child to develop working theories and explore strategies of engagement. Some of this exploration involves people, relationships, places and things or combinations of all these dynamics, but all mindful exploration involves time and space and repetition. I like to think of this interweaving of time and space and repetition as ‘learning wrong’.
Maria Montessori reminds us of the importance of this exploration when she says:
“The environment itself will teach the child, if every error he makes is manifest to him, without the intervention of a parent or teacher, who should remain a quiet observer of all that happens.”
Let’s think about this wisdom - the environment will teach the child when the error is clear to the child but the role of the adult, teacher or parent is that of silent diligent observer. This construct challenges many traditional and cultural understanding of the role of teachers and parents where oral instruction and verbal cueing are accepted and respected norms of support and encouragement. This is always made most visible to me when I supervise student teachers in our Montessori early childhood centre.
On one occasion a student teacher approached me with great concern. She told me that a boy had been doing a puzzle for more than 15 minutes and she wanted to go to help him. I asked her why she thought he needed help and her response was because he had been trying for sooooo long. I asked if he had asked for help. No but he must need help because he has been trying for sooo long! I suggested she keep observing and I would observe too. What I saw was a boy learning through trial and error, placing and replacing pieces, exploring the controls of error provided by the shape, colour and form of the puzzle. I observed a boy absorbed in the task and when the task was complete I saw a boy whose face glowed with a sense of accomplishment. Through my observation I learned about the child’s capacity for perseverance and his ability to engage a variety of problem-solving strategies. The student teacher learned that the “gift of time and space” empowers the child to explore and she admitted that actually she had assumed the child would not be able to complete the puzzle. Certainly the child could have successfully completed the puzzle sooner with some adult verbal cueing but the learning outcome would have been entirely different; an outcome I feel would be more about the role of the adult than the learning experience of the child. Student teachers then want to understand how learning is fostered in this environment without the use of verbal cues and correction.
The other gift of “learning wrong” is repetition or revisiting. Revisiting allows the child to develop a conscious selectivity of which strategies work or don’t work. This creates a continuum of proficiency. At first the child is unaware of elements of error but through repetition begins to consciously recognise error and is then able to transform their own learning through self correction. The sensorial materials in the Montessori curriculum are designed to include a “control of error”. This is an aspect of the material that makes error visible to the child and supports him or her to consciously engage in self correction.
The control of error in materials such as the cylinder blocks is manifest by the fit of the cylinders into the cylinder block. The cubes of the Pink Tower may topple if the sequence is not from the largest to the smallest. At the earliest stage, when the child is unaware of error, the child may place the material back on the shelf in disarray. With repetition and representation of the material by the teacher some of the material is in sequence and eventually the child will self correct their work when they become consciously aware of the aim of the material and become confident about exploring through trial and error.
Maria Montessori has interwoven into the learning materials a capacity for self correction so all that remains is how we as adults respond when a child makes a mistake. A child’s first experience of error is often in the exercises of practical life which are filled with spills as the child learns about caring for themselves, caring for each other and caring for the environment. These “accidents” create opportunities for support and moments of social cohesion which I will discuss more in my next article.
When we, as the adults in the environment, introduce new materials to the young child we call this a presentation. This present or gift of learning provides time and space for the aim of the material to be demonstrated to the child with attention to detail. The careful observation Maria Montessori referred to enables the adult to carefully determine any points of difficulty and determine the right time to represent the material and facilitate a way for the child to move along the continuum of exploration toward self correction. This process avoids creating a situation where a child is unwilling to try a new activity for fear of making a mistake.
This notion of ‘learning wrong” is celebrated as a bridge to “learning well” - where it is accepted that the child does not learn and develop in a linear fashion but makes connections over time and place through experiences that may be spontaneously revisited at any time. For this reason the Montessori materials are always available to the child at any time.
“Learning wrong” creates opportunities for the young child to develop strategies for active exploration, thinking and reasoning and fosters creativity and inquiry. Just as this article is not my first draft and I have utilised the “gifts” of the cut-and-paste facility along with the spell check, your child’s learning will follow a process that is enhanced not hindered by “learning wrong”.