How hard is it for a teacher to admit that he was wrong!

In the readings and the video about Paulo Freire this week, I stopped at his sentence “It is necessary in being a democratic and tolerant teacher to explain and to make clear to the kids that their way of speaking is as beautiful as our way of speaking“. Actually, this is concurrent with one of the controversial topics in social media in the last few days. This post , is about a father who stood up for his daughter who was being made to feel bad because she had a better (or a different) answer than the other kids. The girl got the question “What is the largest number you can represent with 3-digits?” in a standardized test. The intuitive answer is 999, however the girl came up with the answer 9^9^9 (written as superscripts without the power operator). Whatever the answer is correct or wrong it is a big debate and others are getting other formulas with larger values. What concerns me here is that, the teacher and the school’s principal did not show any flexibility with this answer. The teacher claimed that they did not study powers yet!. Which forced the girl’s father to go the long way to get his daughter’s right.

The question here, “Is the teacher’s behavior pedagogical?”. I don’t think so at all. The teacher could be right in some part, but he dealt with the problem in a superficial way. To put together other unprofessional activities from teachers, I suggest reading the post. The post is entitled “Great teachers: perfectly imperfect“.   The post mentioned two situations where teachers caused deep effect to young kids with their way of humiliation. I want to quote the conclusion of this article “The point isn’t that we should hold ourselves to a standard of perfection in our interactions with students. But we should hold ourselves to perfection when it comes to owning our imperfections and their impact on students.

On the other hand, there are brighter sides in this story. Another teacher wrote an article entitled “Five of the biggest mistakes I made as a new teacher“. I think this an important article for new teachers. The article gives five critical mistakes that this teacher committed which are: She took things personally, she avoided dealing with parents, she waited too long before intervening with students, she was afraid of making mistakes, and she were trying to cover everything. From these points, I want to stress that she discovered that it is not the world’s end if she made a mistake.  She was making up answers for the questions she does not know, in order to remain the smartest person in the class.  However, when she let her students see her making mistakes and then admit them and further taking steps to correct them, this made it okay for students to make mistakes too.  The more she took risks in the classroom, the more she made it safe for students to take risks.

Finally, I want to conclude with a story that happened to me in a networking class two years ago. The homework for this course was only short answers. The professor gave us the questions and I made everything correct and I found that I got only  90%. He graded one question as wrong while I felt it is correct. I contacted him and explained my view point, we were to calculate the length of one packet in bytes, (the packet is a combination of ones and zeros). The packet length varies according to the type of the packet. The type mentioned in this problem does not use some of these ones and zeros, so I just ignored them. When I explained this to him, he gave me partial grade. I again felt unfair, I looked in the protocol specification and I found that I was right. I contacted him again with the protocol. He thanked me for this information, informed me that he thought the packet length was fixed whatever the protocol. He gave me full grade and asked me to share this protocol with my class mates. What concerns me here is the instructor was very flexible. He gave me and other students with the different answer, the full grade. I believe that is what Paulo Freire meant in his talk to be a tolerant teacher.

23 thoughts on “How hard is it for a teacher to admit that he was wrong!

  1. Ah, I also came across the “What is the largest number you can represent with 3-digits?” post on linkedin as well. Irrespective of whether this story is true or not and whether the answer provided is correct or not, it hurts to see that students who think outside the box are discouraged to do so by their own teachers. This is obviously not an isolated example and I think standardized testing is to blame here.

    1. Standardized tests are to blame but also the way the teacher addressed the problem is to blame. As you said, it is hard when a student thinks out of the box and gets this response.
      Thanks for your reply.

  2. This is a great post. It highlights the incorrect assumptions of a teacher as authority while the role of the student is subversive. To me, teaching is about a relationship. It is a fluid exchange between the identified “student” and the identified “teacher.” Some of the best teachers I know often acknowledge they learn just as much from their students as their students learn from them. This is the idea of Pedagogy of the Oppressed as explained by Freire. This is also the idea behind Boal’s techniques in Theatre of the Oppressed as I discuss in my blog. The roles are not fixed. Students have the ability to observe themselves as students just as teachers have the ability to observe themselves as teachers. Freire and Boal also take this idea of observation further by recognizing the importance of students AS teachers and teachers AS students.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I really like the idea of students as teachers and teachers as students. I think it is true to a great extent, I can remember that I have learned many times from students’ questions. By thinking in their questions, I would notice relations or points that I did not take care of before.

  3. This actually reminds me of my own experience with my masters defense. You try to make sure all your ducks are in a row, but the questions keep coming and an hour later we had discussed topics so detailed in nature that we were not really talking about the work presented anymore. When they got to a question I did not know I stood there for a moment, and then said “let me get back to you on that, I do not know.”

    They sent me out and for about 20 minutes debated my presentation and then I passed. It turns out the questions were meant to try and stump me so that I would admit a limit to personal knowledge and not to make stuff up.

    The discussion that I had with my advisor afterwards would later change the direction of my doctorate and how I viewed my role as an educator, changing from a inheritor of knowledge to a node and filter for learning.

    If only this teacher in the post above could have positively reinforced this creative thinking instead.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Exactly, teachers or educators have great effects on their students and they way the see or react in the future. I think you had kind of a different experience in your Master’s defense, but the good thing is that it changed your view for learning.

  4. Thank you for your post! I really like it especially because the experience you went through. We all learn from experience…for some reason you advocated for yourself and went out of the way to try and understand why your teacher did not think your answer was completely correct. Not everyone can do that. What concerns me is that if teachers continue to teach the way they always have an shut down attempts of students be innovative, critical thinkers then soon the kids will be conditioned to just accepting what they get and will not advocate for their way of thinking. It is sad to see how many teachers who have done something a certain way for a majority of their careers will sit in meetings and conferences and just refuse to understand how teaching and learning needs change and innovation.

    1. unfortunately, that’s true. Many teachers refuse the idea of change. They are not convinced that their method of teaching was not the perfect one and it needs a lot of improvement.
      Thanks for your comment.

  5. It is interesting to read your idea. I have an experience of making a mistake in class last week. Unfortunately I found my mistake almost at the end of class and there is no time to explain it to students since my class was on Friday and on Friday no one wants to stay in class more than even one minute!!

    That mistake gives me a bad feeling during the whole weekend. I felt I am responsible to all of students and if someone becomes confused about my mistake I have made, this will be my fault. It is not hard at all for me to talk about my mistake and admit that in a situation I was wrong. I think we are all human being and we could make a mistake. The only worry for me was my mistake may cause confusion for some of students and I felt guilty about this issue.

    On Monday I try to explain my mistake very clearly to students. I hope all of them understand it and no one remains confused!

    1. I think as long as you clarified the mistake, they will no more have a confusion. But actually, what you did is first brave and second it shows that you well understand the role of teacher. It is fine to make mistakes, all of us do, but to be eager to correct your mistake and feeling guilty for your students is a symptom of the good teacher.

  6. I like your post. When I was an instructor last summer, I was also afraid of making mistakes because I thought I was responsible to provide the correct information to my students. I tried my best to avoid mistakes. When I made a mistake, I was nervous but I was not afraid of admitting that I was wrong.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Exactly, that what I meant from my post. It is fine to make mistakes but you should do your best to correct that to students and admit your mistake.

  7. Great post! I actually went to the 999 post and read it, and thought about if 9^9^9 is correct — that’s not important though. I am really moved by how the girl’s father fought for her while she was mistreated by the teacher. On this specific issue, the father is a real educator way better than the teacher.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think yes her father understood the role of a teacher than her actual teacher. The way he insisted to get her right was not only for the missing degree but for her right to think and not be punished for her critical thinking.

  8. Great points Abdelrahman! I definitely feel the same way and agree with you… I took two courses in the Industrial Systems Engineering department with the same professor last semester and this semester. He is an assistant professor and I can confidently say that he is a much better teacher than some of the full professors. He is always open to ideas thoughts and suggestions. This makes the course very interesting, exiting and relatable! In one of our classes he explained a concept wrong and once he understood that he has made a mistake he said “I take that back, that explanation was wrong”. That stuck with me and made me realize that owing up to our mistakes will make us better and more trustable and relatable teachers…

    1. Thanks for your comment. I believe that he is more than a good teacher by doing this. I also took one course last semester from Industrial Engineering department, the instructor was very different in the way he gives lectures. Most of the lectures were closer to discussions rather than typical lectures. I felt that I was not learning by this way. However, at the end of the semester I found that I have learned in this course much better than many other courses in my department (ECE). I don’t know if he is the same instructor as yours, but it seems that the Industrial Engineering department is lucky by having these good instructors.

  9. This is a wonderful post. Honestly, thank you for sharing this. Teachers are people who do dumb things, but we really ought to own up to our mistakes, which is an ethical discipline that our education often seeks to avoid. I feel terrible for that little girl who put the right answer. School administrators should have seen this — especially when she never covered exponents! I guess there are limits to “dumb”, because that was REALLY DUMB on their part.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mohammed! Yes, this was dumb from their side. Teachers should be flexible more than this especially with students coming up with better solutions. They should not kill the ability of getting out of the box solutions, rather they should encourage them to be better learners.

  10. What a great post! I feel like the story your shared about the standardized test speaks directly to a thought I kept having looking over the Paulo Freire resources this week–this reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson and how he describes the inequities of our education system today, squashing the creativity and uniqueness of children that should be encouraged. Thank you for sharing this and that it is OK to make mistakes as a teacher!

    1. Thanks for your comment Brittany!
      I agree with everything you wrote, it is OK to make mistakes in classroom as a teacher as long as you will correct that. However, it is not acceptable as a teacher to kill student’s creativity or their enthusiasm to learning.

  11. Thanks for this post!

    One of my advisor’s homework assignments features an explanation of a problem that says “Here’s generally how I expect you to do the problem… But there was this one student one time that solved this problem like this… I’m not sure why it worked, but it did!”

    That humility exists throughout the class and not only do you feel that the teacher is accessible, but you feel that you have the freedom to take risks on assignments! Each assignment in that class felt like an adventure.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I feel it is the teacher’s role to encourage students and provide suitable environment for them to feel fine with trying new things or explore new ways.

  12. The class I TA (I teach the labs) in the fall requires the students to give two group presentations during the semester. As someone who used to really hate public speaking, I feel for the nervous students in the class- some of them start shaking because they’re so nervous. I always try to relax them by saying, “Don’t be afraid to screw up! Just screw up with confidence! Say everything like you mean it and, if you made a mistake, you can fix it later. Look how many mistakes I make teaching this lab. At least once in every period I say or type something wrong or stumble over my words. And do most of you even notice? No, because I do it with confidence!” I don’t know if it helps, but it’s something I wish someone had said to me when I was in college.

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