Many years ago I was privileged to take the famous four day course taught by W Edwards Deming. Deming is widely credited with turning around the Japanese manufacturing system after World War II. he’s one of the founding fathers of modern quality control. His 14 Points or key principles are at the core of his philosophy for quality. His eighth point came to mind again recently as someone Tweeted about Finland avoiding standardized tests to help create a “fear free zone.”
Deming’s 8th point is “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.“ While many people, especially in management, believe that fear is a great motivator Deming did not agree. He believed that fear created an unhealthy environment where people became more concerned with following the rules than doing the right things. It creates an environment where gaming the system to meet artificial or unreasonable metrics becomes a priority over getting real results. Deming was a huge opponent of fear based management.
As I try to teach my students I find myself very concerned about them being afraid. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask questions, to try new things or to go an extra step to learn something beyond my lectures. Honestly the less I can lecture the better in most cases. The more they feel free to stretch themselves and try new things the better and more they will learn.
There are some mistakes that beginners always make on a regular basis. Students are bound to use a single equal sign for a comparison statement when C-style languages like Java and C# require a double equal sign. Making them feel foolish when they do is counter productive. Using the wrong data type is a natural error and a good learning experience not an opportunity to degrade a student.
I’ve taken to asking students to let me know when they run into problems so that I will know what I need to do to teach them better. I tell them that in so many words too. Not so that I can fix it for them or point out “stupid errors” but to do my job better. I want students to see me as a partner in learning rather than someone looking to dock their grades for every little mistake.
Deming did not give grades. Or rather everyone got an A. It was up to the student to learn and Deming to teach. Deming did not want students to live in an environment of fear. I don’t have this same luxury – I teach in high school not at MIT and I’m not internationally famous. What I can do though is reassure students that beginner mistakes are not fatal, that they are good for learning, and that school is not a game of the student against the teacher. I expect that less fear will contribute to more learning.