Teach by Teaching, Not By Correcting - The Montessori Way

Teach by teaching, not by correcting. That's what I strive to do everyday when homeschooling my daughter.

I admit, it feels counterintuitive not to directly point out mistakes in my child's work.

Wouldn't pointing out the mistakes on the spot help her learn not to repeat the mistake?

Maybe, but this is what it also does.

It robs the child of a learning opportunity to discover the mistake on her own and develop the ability to self-correct.

“The teacher should never intervene in an action when the impulse prompting it is good, neither with her approval nor with her help nor with a lesson or correction.” — Maria Montessori, Some Words of Advice to Teachers, 1925.

More importantly, the good intentions of correction can backfire, hampering learning instead.

These are the disadvantages of constant correction.

What Constant Correction Can Do to Children

  • Lowers self-esteem. Constant correction can make children feel like their approach is always "not good enough", and that hurts, leaving children to doubt/second guess themselves often.

Imagine a child cutting an oval from construction paper and excitedly showing it to caregivers for affirmation, but instead of appreciating this child-led effort, told her how it looked more like a circle and she should have cut the shape longer to make an oval.

While this feedback is well-intentioned, it doesn't align to the tone the child wishes to hear as it sounds negative, points out shortcomings and translates to "This isn't good enough." The child might begin to feel less enthusiastic about paper cutting/shape recognition work, and forms the impression that the process of learning and doing isn't as important as the end-product.

  • Lowers motivation and energy. It doesn't excite me to work on something that would be judged or scrutinised. The same applies to children.

  • Results in reliance for others to "show you a better way" or "catch your mistakes". This takes away the sense of ownership in tasks. Children don't feel like they're spearheading a task if it constantly invites involvement (or intervention) from others.

The Importance of Self-Correction

  • Cognitive skills are strengthened. When children are used to self-correcting their own work, they develop heightened cognitive abilities to observe others at work, learn from observation, spot differences and pay attention to details.

  • Creativity is encouraged. Children feel respected for exploring and experimenting in new/creative/challenging ways. The fear of being corrected results in people "playing safe" and sticking with convention.

  • They remember pitfalls/mistakes better. Knowledge gained through self-discovery "AHA" moments can be retained better than that given unsolicited.

Providing a Learning Environment with Control of Error

What kind of learning environment can we provide children to learn risk-taking and self-correcting?

  • Curated Montessori-aligned materials with inbuilt control of error e.g. glassware, sensory tools like The Pink Tower which doesn't stack/fit when placed in incorrect positions. These materials allow children to receive instant feedback on their progress and take risks.

  • An environment that tolerates, or even celebrates mistakes. Room for error teaches children that it is normal and perfectly okay to make mistakes (as long as they're not hurting themselves/others/the environment. It's all about freedom within limits.)

It is really important to let children make (harmless) mistakes, plenty of them! This allows them to ideate, problem-solve and figure the best way forward. We should empower and support our children so they are not afraid to make mistakes and learn the value of trial and error to get a breakthrough. This helps to instil a growth mindset, whereby children are willing to stretch themselves and persist to achieve what they want in life.

More about growth vs fixed mindset by Carol Dweck here.

How to Empower Children to Self-Correct

  • Equip them with tools to check their work. How We Montessori talks about furnishing a dictionary for children for language work (checking spelling etc). This will inculcate a lifelong skill of checking their own work and seeking solutions independently without asking for help first.

  • Model the right use/behaviour/language. Whenever possible, demonstrate how the correct approach could be done in a gentle and respectful way.

I've found my daughter noticing and asking questions about why I hold things differently, pronounce a word differently etc. Children are constantly observing people and the environment around them. Trust in them to notice, pick it up from you, and apply it in due time.

If you want the learning to be time-sensitive

This is what I do when I notice a language error and feel the need to reinforce the right term swiftly in a gentle and respective way.

Daughter: Look! I got a *cucumber from the fridge! (It's a *zucchini)
Me: Oh what a long and green zucchini it is, looks just like a cucumber!

I introduced the correct term and also addressed the fact that the mistake was made because of the similarities in appearances. To reinforce the right term a few more times, I'll add more conversation like:

Me: Would you like to help cut this zucchini up?
Me: See this stem on the zucchini?
Me: What shall we cook this zucchini with?

With this repetition, it is likely that my daughter would catch on and realise that the name for the vegetable is zucchini, without feeling embarrassed about calling it by the wrong name.

Not time-sensitive

Generally - If it's not time-sensitive for me to introduce the right term, I'll pick an appropriate opportunity in the future to do so, e.g. we come across a zucchini example in a vegetable encyclopaedia.

I'll make an effort to point out the anatomy of a zucchini then, so this knowledge would guide her to identify a zucchini correctly next time.

Sources of Inspiration and Reference

I'm not Montessori-trained, so above information stems from my extensive research and reading into the Montessori method.

On the topic of "teach by teaching, not by correcting", these are the Montessori sources I was most inspired by and found useful:

I hope you find it as meaningful to teach by teaching, not by correcting. Let's raise independent, confident little learners!

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Hi! I am Yunnie. I am the newly minted mama to a little baby girl and a mum friend to everyone on this special (and many times scary) journey of motherhood. Also a graduated bride with a penchant for weddings.

Hi! Thank you for taking time to read my blog. I am a stay-home Singaporean mama living in Seattle who is passionate about child-led and open-ended play for children in a conducive home environment.

Discovering Montessori and Reggio has been a life-changer for me. It made me an empathetic and mindful parent who follows my child’s needs and interests in the activities I plan at home. I hope the Montessori-friendly and Reggio inspired baby and toddler activities I share here inspire you too.

Happy reading!