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The School Improvement Specialists
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Tell Me What you Did Wrong

You are working on a problem, let’s say it is a math problem, and you keep coming up with an incorrect answer.  Whether you are an adult or a child, one of the most frustrating things someone can ask you is, “Tell me what you did wrong.”  The thing is we don’t know what we don’t know! If we did, we wouldn’t be doing it. We’d be doing it right!

Depending on your coping skills, you either find a way to let the person know the problem you are having or you just shut down.

Now imagine this happening in a classroom and the effect it as on teacher and student alike.

Teaching Most or Teaching All of your Students

The difference between a teacher who can teach most of her/his children successfully and a teacher who can teach ALL of his/her students successfully in large part depends on a teacher’s ability to correct effectively and efficiently.  Errors provide an opportunity for learning (for both teacher and student), but only when they are corrected effectively. The teacher’s response can correct the error in a way that maintains the student’s dignity or can respond in a way that is shaming or threatening.  In Charlotte Danielson’s Rubric, the teacher whose skills are unsatisfactory conveys to students that, when they have difficulty learning, it is their fault.  This only makes the problem worse.   We know that stress impedes learning and can cause resentment toward school and learning.

So what IS the teacher to do?

The job of the teacher is to uncover the error on the part of the student and provide correction procedures that will move the student on the appropriate road towards being correct and achieving mastery. The effective teacher looks at student’s mistakes as opportunities to truly analyze what caused that error to happen, and adjust instruction the next time they teach a similar concept.  They also need to decide on an appropriate intervention for the current situation.

Here is the model that JP recommends and uses when we coach in the classroom:

  • Model:  When a student errs, interrupt the error by saying, “My turn.” This lets students know they have erred before they have a chance to think the wrong answer is actually the right response.  After interrupting the error, the teacher goes on to model or tell the correct answer.
  • Lead: The next step is to practice the correct answer with the student or students. This is called the lead or guided practice step. At this point the teacher says, “Say it with me”.  This step can be practiced as many times as necessary until there is reasonable certainty that the student “has it”.
  • Test:  When mastery is likely, the teacher says, “Your turn” and the student repeats the correct answer. This step is called a “test”.
  • Starting Over:  The last step of every effective correction is starting over. This provides a delayed test of the item and provides students another repetition of the correct response. It also assures the teacher that the student now “gets it”.

What Not to Do

Never say, “Try again”.  Students give you the best answer they have the first time.  If they “try again” they are likely to give you the same wrong answer or another wrong answer. If that happens, they have practiced and actually gotten better at making errors!

If you choose to go on to another student, always go back to the student who erred and re-ask the question. This demonstrates that you WILL hold the original student accountable. Be cautious about going on to other students because if they do not know the correct answer, all of your students will be exposed to multiple wrong answers!

Once an error has occurred, it will take three times as many repetitions for the student to internalize the correct answer.

10,000 Hours of Practice

Another way to think of repetitions is Practice. In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. How does Gladwell arrive at this conclusion? And, if the conclusion is true, how can we leverage this idea to achieve greatness in our students?

Gladwell studied the lives of extremely successful people to find out how they achieved success.  One of the examples he shares in the book dates from the early 1990s.  A team of psychologists in Berlin, Germany studied violin students. Specifically, they studied their practice habits in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. All of the subjects were asked this question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?”

All of the violinists had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age twenty, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice. The elite had more than double the practice hours of the less capable performers.

Natural Talent was Not Important

One fascinating point of the study: No “naturally gifted” performers emerged. If natural talent had played a role, we would expect some of the “naturals” to float to the top of the elite level with fewer practice hours than everyone else. But the data showed otherwise. The psychologists found a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals.

How Many Repetitions does it take?

Classrooms are made up of students at various levels of mastery and at different skill levels.  The number of repetitions needed to learn new material is different for each group.  Below is the number of repetition different groups of students need to learn new material to a level that they have internalized it.

High Achievers: 10-12 repetitions

Average Students: 25-35 repetitions

Naïve Students: 1400 or more repetitions

This is good news.  There is no implication that some children cannot learn. Some just need more practice than others. Practice that teachers can, and need, to provide.


Errors provide opportunities for learning both for the teacher and the student.

The teacher can collect data on the kind of errors that are happening and why and then adjust their instruction to avoid that kind of error.  The more teachers can reduce the incidence of errors, the more instructional time they have for practice and new material.

Students see that learning is a process and they shouldn’t be ashamed of errors, but embrace them as a way to learn. No shame. Just learning. 

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