One of the key skills a primary teacher tries to institute in their class is the freedom of answering a problem without any trepidation. I tell my students that a wrong answer is not a negative. It is rather an opportunity to learn something new, and there is nothing more satisfying than being able to do something that one previously had trouble with.
Such a reasoning can only be effectively conveyed within a certain learning environment. A calm, friendly, supportive environment inspires children to try their best regardless of whether they are certain they have the correct answer. An intimidating and judgemental environment causes students to feel reluctant to take risks.
Standarised testing is an environment changer, and a study confirms that such ordeals make children less likely to develop the skill of risk taking:
Kids perform better in school if they know failure, and trying again, is part of the learning process, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.
“Experiencing difficulty when we work on a demanding problem may raise the possibility that we are not that smart after all,” said Jean-Claude Croizet, co-author of the study. “Difficulty makes us nervous because it is often associated with lower ability.”
One experiment included 111 French schoolchildren ages 11 and 12. They were given a difficult anagram problem that was too difficult for any of them to solve. Afterwards, researchers told half the kids that failure is common and to be expected when learning. The other group were simply asked how they tried to solve the problem by the researchers. The group that received the pep talk scored better on further tests than the group of kids who did not receive the talk.
“Fear of failing can hijack the working memory resources, a core component of intellectual ability,” the researchers said. “Fear of failing not only hampers performance, it can also lead students to avoid difficulty and therefore the opportunities to develop new skills. Because difficulty is inherent to most academic tasks, our goal was to create a safer performance environment where experiencing difficulty would not be associated with lower ability.”
While the researchers noted the students’ improvement on tests was likely temporary, working memory may get a boost from a simple dose of self-confidence. The researchers said teachers and parents should provide positive reinforcement and point out kids’ progress rather than test scores.
“The cognitive gains obtained in our research may offer promising prospects for application in education because working memory capacity underlies a wide range of complex activities like learning, problem solving and language comprehension,” Autin said.