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“It’s OK to be wrong”

"It's OK to be wrong." This is one of my favorite comments from a focus group I ran about a class I taught on Roman art in 2016. The students were remembering that I said this about a work of art that they were presenting to the class. The image was this one, of a poultry seller from Ostia:

In the focus group that was conducted a year after the class had been taught and concluded, two students remembered this image and my instructions about the day's activities. I had sorted students into groups and then let them choose the image that they would look at, analyze, and then present to the class. I wanted them to get the class involved in their discussions, so I encouraged them to come up with a hypothesis to suggest a possible meaning.

Apparently, after giving those directions, I also said, “And it’s OK to be wrong.” This was what stuck with these two students – a year later.

They said that they were struck by it because they had no idea what was going on in this image. One of them said to the other, “Good because there is no way we are getting this one right.” They did not tell me this during the time of the class, but did so afterwards, when they were asked to participate in this focus group.

This led to a greater discussion about the need to have assignments and activities in classes that are low stakes. Students learn from getting things wrong, but very often those “wrongs” are on high-stakes exams and tests that then hurt their overall grades. I can also see that this leads to high levels of anxiety about tests. By letting students struggle when the stakes are low, they begin to see that not having the right answer is not always the chief and most important result.

In this case, I recall that during their presentation and discussion of the image with their peers, they did not get it right. They were not sure what they were looking at, since the image is more abstracted, with certain elements exaggerated from the perspective of naturalism.

But they remembered this image a year later. If it had been on a test and they had to memorize it, only to have it leave their memory banks, I doubt they would have remembered this image. But because they engaged with it, thought about it, and ultimately, stood up and talked about it, they did remember it.

And in that regard, they did get it right.

2 thoughts on ““It’s OK to be wrong”

  1. Victoria Russell

    I love this! I do low-stakes (no grades, only feedback) collaborative 'design' challenges at the end of each unit in one of my intro to special education courses. Instead of taking a test or writing another paper, students are given application-based challenges to navigate in teams. Sometimes feedback is from me, sometimes it is from experts in the field. I explain these activities from the first day of class as how we make 'space to fail' so that when it 'counts' (in a real classroom with real students) they will have experience to draw on. It has made a difference in my classes' problem-solving and confidence as future teachers.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      Thank you! I'm so glad to hear that you are doing this, too! I have found that asking them to model the very things I would ask on an exam gives me the evidence of how they are learning, as much as an exam would. Interestingly the two students that I am talking about here are future teachers (and football players!). Thanks for posting a comment!


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