Letting a “wrong” answer stand

By Sonja Lukassen, Lead Educator of Ottawa Forest and Nature School

by Sonja Lukassen, Lead Educator of Ottawa Forest and Nature School

As adults and educators we can slip into this belief that it is our job to make sure children know “the right answer”. It can be a challenge to let a wrong answer stand.

That’s not a chipmunk actually. They have stripes on their backs. This is a red squirrel.

That’s a nuthatch, see? Not a chickadee. Chickadees have more black on their faces.

Daisies are bigger and have yellow in their centres. These are asters.

Sometimes we hide the correcting behind questions, trying to make it seem like the child came up with the right answer on their own.

I heard you say that’s a chipmunk. Do chipmunks have stripes on their backs? Yes. Does this creature have stripes on it’s back? No. So… it’s not a chipmunk. What colour is it? Brown? Maybe you mean brownish-reddish? It’s actually a red squirrel. Nice try though!

Some children insist on having the answer given to them. They’ve learned that adults mean quick answers, or they’ve learned that they don’t want to offer a suggestion in case it’s wrong, or they really really want to know because they are sooo curious and categorizing according to the world’s systems is very important to them.

We often view the educators as the people with all of the answers. Some educators believe that is their job.

At Forest School, phew, it’s not. We are not meant to send each child home with a brain full of properly labeled creatures and scientifically detailed diagrams of the weather cycle or frog metamorphosis.

Making snail stew from the ancient ocean snails

 At Forest School we have fish in our 2-inch deep pond, we have lions living in caves, the rock formations were created by earthquakes when the earth was formed, and the land is riddled with dinosaur bones. Our forest is a magical place.

Magical because we have fairies in the undergrowth and jaguars leaving prints in mud puddles, and magical because we don’t have to pretend to be experts. Rather than erase a child’s ideas by correcting them, I get to sink into their ideas and imaginings with them. Rather than pull out my field guide to set an error straight, I can pull out the guide, hand it over, and marvel at the great variety of species that a child is able to identify completely- quite likely inaccurately and definitely joyfully.

I don’t refuse to share information that I know is true. I love the sound of grey tree frogs and I relish every opportunity to share that with someone. I’ll ask a group if they hear the sound, ask what they think it is, ask what they would say if I told them it was a frog, and leave it there. I love when a child smiles conspiratorially and marvels that a frog in a tree is making that sound, and I love when a child insists that it’s actually a bird and I must be wrong.

Building a winter home for the ground fairies 

Why do I need to correct them? Why do I need to make sure they have it “right”?

Letting a child’s answer stand makes room for their imagination to make sense of their world. It adds to the story they are writing in their heads. It nurtures the relationship they are building with the land. Showing interest and support for a child’s narrative also nurtures their relationship with me. A child who knows I will listen to their original ideas is much more likely to take a chance to share those ideas. It’s important to support a child’s willingness to share original ideas and to help them see that it’s okay to speak up without knowing that they are right or wrong. At Forest School, I get to do that.

Sometimes children in the group will correct another child. Okay. Please do so kindly, and please be willing to let the other child’s ideas stand, and go for it. I have seen children be much more receptive to information imparted by peers and friends than by adults. I mean, come on. Other kids know way more than adults anyway, right?

Mining for gold and gems

I’m not advocating for never letting a child know the truth behind geological formations or species identification. I am trusting that when the time arrives that they need to know certain information that most of the world has agreed is true, or that science has shown to be true, then they’ll find out. They will ask, they will read about it, someone will tell them, or they will realize that the original ideas they have been believing no longer make sense and they will look for other explanations that do.

Some children insist on knowing the details of how to distinguish between 3 kinds of ferns, or which kind of woodpecker made which holes in trees. These children are receptive to accurate information, ask for it, look it up when provided with field guides, write things down so they can google them later, come back next week with info to share. I love that kind of learning. Bring it on.

Many other children, though, insist on writing their own truths about the forest and her creatures. They sink deep into their imaginations and come up with explanations for why things are a certain way, or what lives where, or what makes a certain sound. I love that kind of learning, too.

People often call me on my approach, especially people who are more accustomed to other forms of education. I’ve been told that it’s not fair to let a wrong answer stand, that I’m setting a child up for embarrassment and that I am abusing their trust.

An ancient fossil (which may be legit, or may be not so ancient and from a drill- we consulted a field guide to try to figure it out)

I don’t lie to children. I don’t correct them, either. At least I try not to- I’m sure I do. It slips out.

I don’t lie to or correct adults, either. Not intentionally. Adults feel the magic in the forest too, and I have often overheard an adult make a mistake when naming plants or creatures. I haven’t often had to correct them. They have made it to that point in their lives believing a red squirrel is a chipmunk or a toad is a frog. Do I really need to set them straight? Interrupting their moment of connection to tell them they’ve got it wrong lets all of the air out of their magic bubble. The filled-up, warm connection feeling is replaced by one of cold, lonely, wrongness. What’s the point in that?

Making jam in the kitchen

 I love not being an expert. I don’t have to pretend to know everything about everything, and I have a lot more fun listening and conspiring with the young people around me who do.