Mandating perfection: Why penalizing mistakes is a terrible way to help high schoolers learn

Errare humanum est.

Seneca, a Roman Philosopher, spoke these words (“to err is human”) because he too knew the importance of mistakes. Even 2,000 years ago, people forgave humans for the inevitable mistakes they made.

We all know humans live and breathe mistakes. Some students will forget to study for their math exam; while others, in the midst of repaying tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, realize they never actually wanted to be a doctor.

But we know there’s a bright side to these mess-ups. People learn from their mistakes, and they often even thrive from them. How could we ever possibly realize what we want to do in life if it weren’t for experiences that didn’t end as we expected? With each mistake we make, we evolve. (But you probably already knew that.)

As teenagers, we are doomed to make mistakes. Just at the peak of becoming an adult, we find ourselves juggling APs, sports, community service, and still trying to find time to maintain a social life. But making mistakes isn’t the problem. The real issue is when we are punished for our unavoidable errors.

Currently, I am a sophomore at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), just north of Chicago and a purple line ride away. I love it here. I love the opportunities my school provides, the people I have met here, and even the size of the school that has to accommodate all 3,300 people. (It’s the biggest high school under one roof in America.)

ETHS is a great school. I feel lucky to attend it, but like any other high school, they are practically telling us that making mistakes in school isn’t okay. This is apparent when teachers establish classrooms policies like “no test corrections” or “late work means no credit.”

Many don’t understand that life happens. Of course, this isn’t true for all teachers, but it’s become more evident each year that I have been in school. When we forget to do our chemistry homework and don’t have the chance to turn it in the next day, our grade can be negatively impacted. No, this doesn’t sound disastrous. After all, a homework assignment might only be worth a few points. However, this is just one assignment for one class. It will add up. Too many times, our GPA isn’t accurately measuring the effort we put into a course.

I’m not asking for a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card

This wouldn’t be as big of a problem if our futures didn’t rely so heavily on college, which is highly influenced by our grades in high school. I am not saying that we should constantly be getting “get out of jail free cards.” It’s beneficial to no one if everyone gets an A at the end of the semester. Nonetheless, we should have more second chances.

The tricky part is trying to find a balance between letting kids off the hook and being too harsh about simple human errors. But I have had teachers who have found sufficient methods to figuring out how to take on the mistakes of students; there are simple solutions.

For example, my Latin teacher last year gave alternate homework assignments to those who didn’t complete the previous night’s homework. At the beginning of the year, she gave out two homework passes for the semester because she understood that sometimes we can’t check everything off the to-do list. She even allowed for test corrections on certain portions of tests we took. We were able to make mistakes in that class, but also use them to help us in the future.

Teachers should prepare for our mistakes. They should embrace them and help us learn from them.

All schools, but high schools especially, need to make mistake-making part of the learning process. We shouldn’t be expected to nail everything the first time around. To err is human and when the errors aren’t normalized, unrealistic expectations are set.

What do you think?
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Rachel Krumholz

Rachel Krumholz

Rachel Krumholz is a young writer who attends Evanston Township High School as a sophomore. She writes as the feature editor for her school newspaper, The Evanstonian. Besides writing, some of her interests include volunteer work, playing soccer, and traveling. Rachel’s dream career would be to work as a journalist, where she could collaborate with and interview important figures.

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