They Might Be Giants recently released a CD/DVD called Here Comes Science (the third in their "Here comes..." series). My wife and I have loved this band since college, and now our two children have become huge fans as well. For a long time, they have performed a great song called "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)". My family loves singing along to this oddly catchy ode to the sun's atomic properties.
However, with the release of this new disc, the band has issued a retraction (in a manner of speaking). While the original sun song is still present, there is now an additional song called "Why Does The Sun Really Shine? (The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma)" that follows it immediately. The second song updates the scientific facts, discussing the nature of the fourth state of matter (plasma), and tells the listener in its lyrics to ignore what you learned in the previous song. Sample lyric: "Forget that song/They got it wrong/That thesis has been rendered invalid" Check out this link for a more detailed explanation.
In addition, they've recorded a great song that discusses the true nature of our solar system, indicating Pluto's new status along with other named dwarf planets. Taken with the songs about the sun, these choices by They Might Be Giants have led me to what I've learned today as a teacher: When you have taught something wrong, don't just admit that you're wrong; start to make things right.
As a teacher, I have certainly taught things wrong or provided inaccurate information before. Many times, I don't figure this out until after my work with those students is done (usually as I prepare the material again the next year), but I often catch my mistake while I'm still working with the students. It is at that moment that I need to make the choice: Will I ignore the mistake, admit to the mistake, or work to fix the mistake? Each choice holds its own merits, but the lesson from this children's album points to best practices in education, namely:
What to do when you make a mistake (courtesy of They Might Be Giants):
1) Admit to the mistake immediately. This may involve the students losing an illustion that we are infallible, but that can actually lead to a better situation in a classroom. Students who see teachers that are willing to admit mistakes become more likely to admit their own mistakes.
2) Explain why the mistake was made. Rather than just saying, "Forget that, it's wrong!", point out what was wrong about the previous information and why people might have believed that at the time.
3) Correct the mistake by replacing the wrong ideas with the right ones. Too often, we ask kids to disregard information that we taught them, but it's still lodged in their memories (and it will often emerge inconveniently after we thought they knew it was wrong). By replacing "wrong" information with "right" information, we won't just address the issue; we'll make sure that it doesn't come back.
So, this fall, I am going back to school prepared to admit my mistakes and to help my class learn from my mistakes (as I learn from them myself). However, I wonder how many students around the world will be taught that there are 9 planets in our solar system, revolving around a nuclear reactor of a sun, just because it's easier to teach that (and use the "My very educated mother..." phrase) than to update our knowledge.