Mistakes are proof you’re trying! When you’re teaching in your classroom you might wonder… are mistakes really a good thing? Don’t students have to get the answer right, too? Today we are going to talk about why mistakes are a good thing in the math classroom! Let’s jump in.
What are Mistakes in Math?
Mistakes in math can be opportunities to learn, develop curiosity & critical thinking, and create self advocacy.
Reason #1 Mistakes in Math are a Good Thing:
Mistakes in math are opportunities for students to learn. In fact, students learn the most math when they are “doing” math, not from an answer. Consider for a moment the last night you arrived at a solution to a problem and learned from the solution. You probably learned more from the process you took to get to that solution.
For example, if the chain on your child’s bike falls off once you get it back on you feel relieved and happy to figured it out, but you didn’t actually learn anything from it being back on. Instead, you learned a lot (thanks youtube) about how to put it back on and how bike chains work. That way next time it falls off you’ll know how to put it back on. The process is where the learning occurs. The same is true for math!
When students do math they go from mistake to mistake making sense along the way. That is what we should be celebrating in math class- the process, because the process of doing math is the learning!
Reason #2 Mistakes in Math are a Good Thing:
Mistakes in math are an opportunity to develop curiosity and wonder. I know, you may be rolling your eyes at this one thinking… right Mona, but what about my curriculum and the standards I’m suppose to teach? I get it and that’s all important too. However, we have to teach students to be curious and wonder in math. Math is not just about answering questions it’s about developing them.
Take this example, students are working on a task about area of a garden (common question right 3rd grade teachers?). They are figuring out the area of the garden beds, but then they aren’t getting the right answer because they keep trying to figure out how much soil would be needed to fill a garden bed since the beds are raised. They are pushing themselves toward developing an understanding of volume, but totally missing area. We know that when students discover things in context they are more likely to remember and understand more deeply. Although they haven’t figured out the area of the garden bed, the students is pushing themselves, being curious & developing new understandings.
Mistakes in math allow students to think critically about their own work and others. There is nothing better than when students find their own mistakes. I like to create norms in our math classroom where students are expected to check each others’ work and speak up when they disagree or don’t understand. This often leads to students pointing out where their peers have taken a wrong turn in solving. Then, together as a group we can uncover the mistake and correct it!
Mistakes encourage self advocacy. Instead of students sitting at their seats waiting to be rescued by the teacher, because the teacher holds the right answers, students can work through the problem and advocate for themselves when they need to level up their support. Here’s what I mean by that. Create a culture where struggle and wrong answers aren’t a stop sign. Instead, they are a pause point where students go back to the problem and reconsider their solution path. Mistakes can be a moment where students pause to think about other strategies they could apply or consider the problem from another perspective. By teaching students that they can help themselves they are gaining the skills needed in life to problem solve through mistakes and challenges. Then, when they have exhausted al their strategies they can ask for help with a specific question or area of confusion.
Give it a try in your classroom. Build your classroom community with structures that allow students to be safe to make mistakes. Develop norms that allow students to use mistakes to build their skills in mathematics. Then, come back and let us know in the comments what is working and what is still a question!
Take a look at this article from NCTM
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