Trial and Error (But Mostly Error)

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Kids can learn many things through trial and error. But writing isn’t one of them.

Kids can learn to skateboard by trial and error; to draw; to sing; to play any number of sports; to play pop music.

So what gives? Why can kids learn so many things by trial and error but not writing?

Because when they want to improve their drawing, they can see the quality they’re going for in other drawings. When they sing, they know how they sound relative to the voices they hear in their earbuds. When they play basketball, they watch other better players, over and over and over, mimicking their movements until they’ve got them down.

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It comes down to a formula of sorts: Kids can learn it if they can see it, know what’s good about it, and know how to compare their work with that of the people whose work they most admire.

With writing, kids can try forever. But mostly they will err. They won’t improve much because, although they can read, they often can’t judge the quality of what they read—beyond knowing how much and why they like it. Nor can most kids (probably 99.9%) mimic the writing they read. Copy it?Sure. Produce original writing in the same style? Doubtful.

The same can be said of any skill where the final product is an amalgam of elements whose discrete characteristics are difficult to discover. Good writing is full of tiny bits of work pieced together in ways we can’t easily pull apart.

To learn to write well, kids need to learn what well-written prose looks like. But they also need a vocabulary to describe what well-written prose is, to distinguish it from what is not well-written, and to identify discrete (words, phrases, sentences, etc.) and abstract (ideas, organization, voice, etc.) features that add up to something greater than the sum of the parts.

Without explicit instruction, kids don’t know how to discover individual atoms of language that make the molecules of prose that catalyze the reaction readers feel when they read something good. In contrast, it’s easy to see someone execute a successful skateboard trick or a tight cross-over dribble.

Trial and error is an essential part of learning to write. But until kids learn to produce good work and how to find and fix their errors when they’re not producing good work, their trials will be mostly errors.

Correcting kids’ writing errors isn’t as useful as we’d like to be. It’s also time-consuming for teachers and often a demotivating activity for kids.

Instead of correcting, kids need us to model correction—in their work and our own—to have high standards for correct and effective work, and to teach them explicit techniques for creating it themselves. Pointing out their errors may help some kids see them, but at best this has a small positive effect. Error-hunting isn’t what we want them to learn anyway. We want them to learn to write well to begin with.

Writing is not a simplistic system governed by hard and fast rules that tell us what works and what doesn’t. This is why assistive technology that attempts to help writers improve the accuracy of their spelling, punctuation, usage, and grammar isn’t very effective at helping kids learn to increases their accuracy on their own.

Rules of right and wrong exist for things as simple as capitalizing the first letter of a sentence and putting a period at the end. The best assistive writing technology can find and fix these types of errors — some of the time.

With simple rules and smart machines, kids make fewer errors but they don’t seem to learn how to write without problems from the start. Most importantly, no rules or machines exist for putting two or three or four sentences together and determining whether or not a writer has created an effective paragraph that meets the needs of the writer’s purpose and audience.

There are no magical ways of expressing meaningful human thought in writing related to the writer who writes it. This is why most correction isn’t meaningful either. Kids need to know what good writing is and have a repertoire of reliable techniques for producing it.

Trial and error doesn’t work when kids don’t know what to do, why they err in doing it, and how to make things better. In this situation, the value of correction is minimal.

Nobody likes to make mistakes. Even worse, however, is the embarrassment we feel when we compound mistakes. This happens often in writing when one error leads a writer to make another error — and another, and another after that.

Kids also face the possibility of committing the same error so many times in a piece that it becomes a habit. When this happens, unlearning usually has to precede new learning.

Both of these unfortunate situations are more likely to occur in long pieces. Moreover, kids are less inclined to correct large numbers of errors that accumulate in long pieces. Short pieces are ideal for mastering editing.