Saturday, 22 November 2014

Making errors and spotting where the plain socks are located

Making mistakes is just a part of life. I have made mistakes and I still do make them. I put my hands up. Once, in my youth, I bought a yellow canary coloured shirt once. My ‘friends’ ridiculed me constantly the one time I unveiled the shirt as the latest fashion choice that I never wore it again. In fact, I have a complete aversion to the colour yellow now. I have been mentally scarred by the whole experience. I’d like to think it was a colour-blind phase I was going through; but it wasn’t.  At university I purchased a lime green shirt. Then, a few years ago I bought a red shirt. The reaction to the colours often makes me understand the mistake I have made. I learn my mistake after the purchase. Then, I change my whole perspective on the whole thing. What felt like a good idea at the time becomes, on a reflection, a terrible mistake. There is almost an ‘eye of the storm’ aspect to making mistakes. We don’t see them at the moment of doing it. It is only when I have left a shop with my purchase and put on the shirt and then been ridiculed by family and friends that I realise: maybe, bright yellow isn’t my colour.

Yes, this is a blog about fashion tips for men in teaching. No - although maybe that could be a possible series of blogs - I am interested about mistakes and the nature of mistakes. The clues is in the title of the blog. It is interesting how we seem to have two ends of the spectrum: students that fear speaking in a lesson or endlessly draft work to avoid making a glaring error; or, students that make a mistake every word or line and accept them as a part of life, like breathing or blinking. We, teachers, traipse a tightrope between praise and punishment. Between highlighting and correction. Between frustration and ignorance. The problem often is time. There is never enough time. This is a result of our curriculums. The emphasis on content leads us to often have a crammed curriculum with no time for dealing with the mistakes head on. What if the content of curriculums was reduced to the ten lines? And, the overall focus was on making better readers and writers?

I have seen endless blogs about proofreading, DIRT time and taxonomy of errors, but their existence highlights a need for this issue to be addressed. Does the juggernaut of the curriculum actually hinder progress? Do we spend enough time looking at the errors? Or, do we feel the need to teach new things, just to appease the god of progress? Or, are we teaching students to learn that mistakes are tolerable as long as their ideas and the content of their work is good? Maybe, our obsession with getting students to the next grade is making us neglect helping students to secure their current grade. Oh look this C/D student is using an A grade skill!

Of course, marking is at the heart of the mistake conundrum. I spot mistakes. I comment on mistakes. I get students to act on the information. I hope they learn to not make the mistake again. I mark again. I spot the mistake again. I comment …. You get the idea. As a teacher, I will think: is it me? Am I teaching them correctly? Do I need to do more? However, I think at the heart of the problem is the unwritten philosophy of teaching. New is better. Old is worse. The new teachers are often popular. The old ones fade into the background. A new concept in a subject is sexier than on old one. Look commas are dull as dishwater. They are so last year. Pathetic fallacy sounds sexy. It sounds exotic. It is sounds so fresh and clever. As it turns out, the student learns to use pathetic fallacy, but cannot use a comma correctly in a hostage situation.

I recently bumped into a student I used to teach and we had a conversation about what he is doing now. Interestingly, he is studying A-level English. I asked him: ‘Does your English teacher nag you about using quotes?’ The reply was in the affirmative. I was saddened by this response. It was great to hear that he is studying English, but the fact that he hadn’t learnt from that one constant mistake he used to make in my lessons saddens me the most. At one stage, when I was teaching the student, I wrote the word quote 50 billion times on his work to help him get the message.  A great lad, but he didn’t get it.

Is it our student’s mindset?  Or is it teachers’ mindset? Do students think that a piece of work will be good if it has great ideas and basics do not matter? What makes our students learn from their mistakes? Teachers? Students? Both?

I started making some posters for students, identifying three key things a student would do in their work at a particular grade. However, in my planning I was focusing on what students should add such as paragraphs or a variety of sentence structures. I wasn’t focusing on the basics, so I came up with this:

A* - One error in the whole piece or free from errors  

A – A few basic errors throughout the whole piece  

B – One basic error on every page

C – One mistake every few paragraphs

D – One mistake a paragraph

E    - One mistake a sentence

Now, I expect people would look at this list and think it is too negative. Show a student this and it focuses on the negative aspects of their writing. But, doesn’t our obsession with seeing the positive sometimes cloud our perspective on the basics? The focus on APP made this apparent. Look they have the spelling of a Level 7, but their punctuation is Level 3. Let’s give them a Level 7.  You could dress anything up to be an outstanding piece of writing, but without the basics, it cannot be an outstanding piece of writing. Rather than upselling writing, let’s look at the basics. Let’s focus on the basics. Let’s explicitly talk about the basics. Let’s make the basics the core of what we do and make the ‘lacy’ or ‘sexy’ new stuff be secondary to the basics. As long as the sexy new stuff takes priority, the old basics will drag everything down.

If only clothes shops had these lists, then I wouldn’t make so many fashion mistakes. Then again: shops want us to fail at this so we buy more from them. They are forever shoving the spangly and garish new items of clothing in our faces. But, where are the plain socks? The item of clothing you need, in this country, every day. The basics are neglected. They are hidden away. They are neglected. They probably sell more yellow shirts than socks to people like me.  

Thanks for reading,



  1. In education, teachers, parents and pupils have to consider when is the best time to learn how to write standard English, how to teach and learn it, how to assess the learning of it...

    Grammar check

  2. I always find your posts substantial - you never write without purpose and something useful to say. I think you're right - we are 'hurried along' the curriculum to the next stage and can so easily take an ostrich's approach to the fact that knowledge hasn't been consolidated. What did you think about Nick Gibb's 'bring textbooks back' idea this week? I thought what he said about coherence and connectivity in the curriculum might have some weight.

  3. Thank you, Fran. I think there is something in Gibb's comments. Although I am a big fan of textbooks, I can see there benefit. I am always surprised how we expect NQTs to reinvent the wheel when it is presented in glossy colour for them. A textbook help teachers master the basics. Then, a teacher can build on things.

    Thanks again,


  4. As cliche as it may sound I encourage mistakes. It's all part of learning and so many students are afraid to speak, well, the older ones. They get so much pressure from their parents. I don't need to add more. That's the way it is in Eastern Asia anyways for the most part.

  5. It is really an ideal thing that our children will have to learn all the basics of English language. It's because, this is the most number one thing that we will have to use for further communication.

    english tests


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