Woah, hang on there. Mistakes are good?

Yes. When a student makes mistakes, it means they are in the process of learning, and making a mistake highlights what NOT to do, and what's not working. It also means the satisfaction of getting is right is much sweeter!

If you started riding a bike and never fell off, would you feel as accomplished as you do now? And in the same token, would you forever be fearful of falling off because you'd never experienced it? 

Learning to encourage mistakes with your student is important. Don't be too hard on them when they don't get the answer right, or if they get the right answer but do it the wrong way (yep, they might be multiplying when they should be dividing but for some reason the answer comes out correct!). Let them know its okay, that's its not "bad" to be wrong sometimes. Ask them how they got to their answer. And then build on that to show them the proper way to do it.

Mistakes are part of the learning process

When you were learning to cook, how many times did you undercook or burn the food before you figured out how to make your food look like the recipe? How many times did you burn yourself on the fire before learning to use protection?

In today’s academic environment, students have a legitimate fear of making mistakes because they deem mistakes as failures rather than a part of the learning process. So much pressure is put on making good grades that the actual learning process no longer welcomes the inevitable mistakes that occur throughout it. Most of the pressure is brought on by children who simply want to do well, while the rest is a result of the parent or teachers reaction to it.

So how can we help change the negative perceptions associated with mistakes so our students can more easily bounce back?

Students have a legitimate fear of making mistakes because they deem mistakes as failures rather than a part of the learning process. Let's do our part to change this!

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Communicate the importance of making mistakes

Make sure your student understands that mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process.   Without a mistake, you have no way of identifying deficiencies.  Rather than simply pointing out that an answer is incorrect, help them associate the mistake with a learning opportunity.  By helping them recognise the learning process in everyday things such as cooking or riding a bike, you can help them understand that mastering a task requires adjustment and repetition.

Also, be mindful of the way you communicate a mistake.  Avoid using words, phrases or body language that make mistakes feel like failures.  Avoid sighing or shaking your head when identifying a mistake. Instead of saying the answers are “wrong” say “almost” then walk them through the problem. The more accepting you are about the mistake the less significance your student will place on them and the more eager they will be to correct them.

Identify where the mistake happened

Mistakes in math are usually the result of a simple error in computation or a single concept applied incorrectly to several questions. The “fix” is typically easier than how big the problem feels to your student in that moment. Communicate the value of the mistake then proceed to figuring out where the error occurred.

Allow them to walk you through the steps they took to arrive at the answer.  Simply looking at the problem again will often help them to find the mistake on their own.  Perhaps they added incorrectly or forgot to carry a number. Easy fix!   However, if they are unable to find their error; figure out where in the process they faltered, show them how to derive at the correct answer and begin purposeful practice.  Purposeful practice involves isolating what’s not working to master the skill that is causing the difficulty.   The key element of purposeful practice is repetition.  No one learns to ride a bike the first time they try.  Usually you start with balancing before you even begin to peddle.  The same thing applies here.  Master the concept before moving on to the next one.

Acknowledge your student's efforts

Imagine how you feel as an adult within your work environment.  Although you understand why it happens, it’s difficult to be singled out for your mistakes but seldom rewarded for the things you do right. Now imagine those pressures for a child who is less equipped to deal with that kind of scrutiny.

Find areas in your student’s work to praise them for a job well done.  Did they follow directions?  Did they write neatly?  Were they able to get 2 of 3 steps correct before they faced a challenge?  No matter how simple it may be, recognising your student’s efforts will instil a sense of confidence that makes the process of learning a much more enjoyable experience for them.

Ultimately, mistakes create the best opportunities for learning.  Helping your student recognise the value of their mistakes will make the journey to maths mastery a much more gratifying one!

You can check out the 4 Steps to Becoming a Better Maths Teacher blog post, or you can go ahead and download the free Mega Bundle, which has a ton of resources for teaching students at home or in the classroom. 

Here's the link to that free download bundle:

These resources are some of our teachers (and parents!) favourite tools. There's lesson planners, maths fact sheets, 4 Steps to Mastery Mastery, research documentation and more!

And remember, have fun making mistakes!

The Team at Maths Australia

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