Socrates comes to school, part one: Making Mistakes

Theo Socrates is eleven years old. He has never received any formal schooling. He was born and raised in a small fishing village on a lesser-known Greek island, where his parents chose to home-school him.

Theo has recently moved to the UK with his family. He speaks excellent English, having studied it since he was very young. He is embarking on a tour of schools, with a view to beginning at a secondary school soon. The idea of going to school is alien to Theo and he views the concept of formal education through fresh eyes.

On his first tour, Theo is shown around by a student, Jonnie Glaucon. He asks him if he likes going to school.

Socrates:         Do you like it here, Jonnie?

Glaucon:          Well, I like most things, I enjoy it here. And you will too.

Socrates:         I’m glad. But you said ‘most things’. Is there something you don’t enjoy?

Glaucon:          Just the exams – school tests that we often have to do. I don’t enjoy those.

Socrates:         And why don’t you like the tests, Jonnie?

Glaucon:          I don’t like making mistakes. I worry that my score will be low, you see.

Socrates:         So if you make a mistake on a test, you will have a lower score?

Glaucon:          Yes, of course.

Socrates:         So, it is better to make no mistakes?

Glaucon:          Well, I think we all try to get everything right, if we can.

Socrates:         So, I have a question for you, Jonnie. May I ask it?

Glaucon:          Of course, Theo. And I will see if I get it right.

Socrates:         My question is this: which is better, to be always right or sometimes wrong?

Glaucon:          If you want to get the highest marks in the class, then it is better not to make any mistakes – so always right. That way you get 100%! My friend, David, scored 100% on a maths test last term. Everyone was really proud of him.

Socrates:         And what did you score on that test?

Glaucon:          I only scored 57%.

Socrates:         So you got 43% of that test wrong?

Glaucon:          If you say so, yes.

Socrates:         But you are trying hard to get 100% next time?

Glaucon:          We all are, Theo. That is always our aim.

Socrates:         And do you get the test papers back, so that you can go through them?

Glaucon:          Yes, the teachers always give them back and we go through them. We call them feedback sessions.

Socrates:         Ah, that makes sense. To see where you went wrong?

Glaucon:          Yes.

Socrates:         And if you have made a mistake, do you find out where you went wrong in these feedback sessions?

Glaucon:          Yes.

Socrates:         So if you make a mistake, you learn from it, is that correct? You increase your knowledge?

Glaucon:          Yes, Theo. We always try to learn from our mistakes. We have to. That way we increase our knowledge, as you say.

Socrates:         So making mistakes helps you to learn more?

Glaucon:          Well, I’ve never thought of it like that, but I suppose you’re right.

Socrates:         If this is true, then the more mistakes you make, the more you learn, do you agree?

Glaucon:          Well, that follows, yes. If the work is so hard that you get it wrong, and you get it right next time, then you have learned something, I suppose.

Socrates:         You certainly have. When your friend David received his maths test paper, he was pleased that he scored 100%, yes?

Glaucon:          Oh, he was very pleased. He was talking about it all breaktime.

Socrates:         I’m sure he was proud that he had made no mistakes.

Glaucon:          Yes, he was.

Socrates:         And if he had made no mistakes, then he had no errors to correct?

Glaucon:          That’s right, Theo.

Socrates:         So he learned nothing in the feedback session?

Glaucon:          Well, I suppose not.

Socrates:         But you learned something in that feedback session?

Glaucon:          Yes, I did. And I won’t make the same mistakes again!

Socrates:         So would you agree that the person who made the most mistakes in the examination, learned the most in the feedback session?

Glaucon:          Yes, I suppose that follows.

Socrates:         And in ordinary lessons, do you make mistakes then?

Glaucon:          Well, I try not to.

Socrates:         Why? Is your classwork marked too?

Glaucon:          Yes, it is. Our work always has to be marked. One time, David’s work was not marked and his parents wrote a letter to the teacher.

Socrates:         Ah, so every time you complete work in school it is marked by the teacher?

Glaucon:          It is supposed to be, yes.

Socrates:         And if it is marked, does this mean that you don’t want to make any mistakes in lessons either?

Glaucon:          Yes, that’s true. We all try not to get questions wrong.

Socrates:         But have we not just agreed that if you make a mistake and you learn from it then you have increased your knowledge?

Glaucon:          Erm.. yes. We did agree that.

Socrates:         And the person who makes no mistakes has not actually increased their knowledge?

Glaucon:          Yes, that follows.

Socrates:         So the person who makes the most mistakes, and learns from them, has learned the most? Would you agree?

Glaucon:          Yes, I suppose that must be true.

Socrates:         So trying something that is difficult and making a mistake will eventually increase your knowledge?

Glaucon:          Yes.

Socrates:         So why did you say at the beginning that you don’t like making mistakes?

Glaucon:          Erm… I don’t know now. I’m not sure why I said it.

Socrates:         Do you think it is better to be always right or sometimes wrong?

Glaucon:          Well, given what you’ve just said, I think maybe it’s better to be wrong sometimes, because that way you will increase your knowledge when you understand where you went wrong and get it right next time.

Socrates:         Which means you will have learned something?

Glaucon:          Yes.

Socrates:         But earlier on, you said that it was better to be always right.

Glaucon:          Well, maybe I was wrong.

Socrates:         You made a mistake?

Glaucon:          Yes, I suppose so.

Socrates:         Good! So you have learned something because you were wrong.

Glaucon:          Yes, I think I have.

Socrates:         Enjoy the rest of your day, Jonnie. Thank you for answering my questions.

Glaucon:          That’s ok. Did I get them all right?


In the next blog, Theo meets the Headteacher, Mr Plato, whom he quizzes about ‘measuring progress’.

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