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Are erasers in school 'instruments of the devil'?

Eraser Image copyright Thinkstock

A cognitive scientist has suggested rubbers be banned from classrooms. Chris Stokel-Walker asks - What is the benefit in presenting children's work, warts and all?

Guy Claxton, visiting professor at Kings College London, has sparked arguments with his comments that the humble eraser is "an instrument of the devil". At some schools corrective fluid is already banned, though more because some unruly pupils try to sniff its fumes.

The cognitive scientist told the Daily Telegraph that rubbers create "a culture of shame about error. It's a way of lying to the world, which says 'I didn't make a mistake. I got it right first time.'"

It is better, Claxton argues, to embrace mistakes, because that's what happens in the real world. Is he correct, and should erasers be banned from the classroom?

"I think banning erasers is a draconian action," says John Coe, a spokesman for the National Association for Primary Education (NAPE). "However, on occasions rubbers should not be used. If I'm teaching a class mathematics, I'd want them to show workings. I wouldn't want my pupils to be so overwhelmingly concerned for the correct answer that they didn't show me any indication - and that includes the wrong answer - as to how they got to the answer they arrived at."

In fact, seeing children's mistakes is an important part of learning. "The observation of children's mistakes is essential to good teaching," adds Coe. "Teachers need to observe all the attempts children make so they can target their instruction."

Claxton's argument is that by making children deny they make mistakes, we fail to prepare them for the real world, where mistakes can be made, and consequences ensue.

"For young children the step of being able to own up to a mistake is a big step to make," says Dr Anthony Williams, a child psychology expert from the University of Sheffield. "Even as adults we sweep in and out of accepting our mistakes."

But if we ban erasers from the classroom, as Claxton proposes, where would it end?

"More and more of the classroom takes part on IT," says Williams. "Would you take away the delete key? Can you imagine doing your job, or other people doing theirs, if you took away the delete key? In the real world we are always making minor mistakes, revising, changing."

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