Using Mistakes as a Learning Tool

As the age-old expression goes, “you learn from your mistakes”. At some point, the great sages of societies (you and I) realized that with a positive mindset, mistakes become the bridge to a better version of yourself. After all, life is not a race to the finish but rather a marathon of one’s own endurance. For children, it’s not uncommon to equate slip-ups and shortcomings to failures. However, there’s far more benefit toward growth in difficulty than in success. With the right guidance from their teachers, children will begin using mistakes as a learning tool instead of a shaming tool. This article is all about just that — how mistakes can help children learn math and the importance of making mistakes.

How Mistakes Help You Learn

As we’ve stated before, “good mistakes” do exist. They are important stepping blocks to persevering and arriving at the correct answer. When it comes to learning math, sometimes the correct answer can seem so concrete and immovable that no error appears acceptable. Often, students incorrectly believe that if they “don’t have what it takes” to be good at something, they will never be. This is what we call having a fixed mindset, and it’s one of the most significant setbacks to any learning mind. To elaborate, psychologist Carol Dweck describes a fixed mindset as such: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”

Of course, we cannot deny that some answers are right, while other answers are wrong. However, everyone has the potential to grow and improve their current level. That’s the biggest takeaway about using mistakes to learn —

when a child believes in their ability to expand, mistakes become a stepping stone rather than an obstacle.

This way of thinking can be called a growth mindset.

Can Making Mistakes Be Beneficial?

A 2016 study from the department of psychology at Columbia University observed a correlation between mistakes, confidence, and better learning. Those students who approached their challenges with greater confidence (a belief in themselves) actually learned better after someone corrected their mistakes! It also insinuated that a learning strategy where students avoid making mistakes is counter-productive. In other words, the higher the stakes of the challenge, the “bigger” the mistake will be. Therefore, the more helpful the correction will be.

There are other scientific studies that point to the impact of mistakes and their positive implications. Researchers at the Baycrest Rotman Research Institute produced a study that found that making minor mistakes improves memory, which increases your odds of future success. Another 2011 study from researchers in Singapore pointed out the benefits of “productive failure” using 7th-grade mathematic students. The students who teachers forced first to try on their own (and fail) before getting guidance outscored those who teachers helped out from the start. Read more: Effective Questioning in the Math Classroom.

Tips for Learning Math —  How to Use Mistakes for Learning

Use the Best Learning Style —  There is always an emotional component to learning. Every student connects differently with themselves as they learn. Some work better alone while others do better in groups. Then, there are some who ask a lot of questions along the way, while others wait until the end. Finally, some work out answers in their head while others write them down.

Take into account that each child learns differently, and be willing to say, “okay, let’s try to learn it using this technique now”. Get to know your students’ strengths and weaknesses, and encourage them to know them as well.

The Power of Not Yet —  Indeed, some things come more easily than others depending on the learner. Sometimes a child makes a mistake or doesn’t meet their own expectation. In this case, ensure them that they are on the way to where they want to be. Saying to a student, “you’re not there yet, but you’re making good progress!” reminds them that their potential is limitless and that they should never give up.

Analyze Errors —  Errors are not shameful. Mistakes aren’t a reflection of your intelligence. Instead of hiding mistakes or bashing students for being imperfect, do the opposite. Take some time within each class to analyze the most common mistakes you observe and reflect on them.

Ask the students individually about their thinking process and let them share it with the class. Learning together with no inhibitions is what makes a conducive learning environment where everyone can honor self-efficiency and challenge.

Remember that Learning Isn’t Easy —  Be patient with your students as they struggle to learn at times because it’s not an easy journey, especially as a teacher who focuses on errors. The greatest goal for each student is to develop their metacognition ability (thinking about what you’re thinking about). Your job is to bring them there and teach them why that is of the utmost importance. Even if they don’t realize you’re teaching them this!

Greatest World Inventions That Came From a Mistake:

  • Post-it notes — Spencer Silver created a glue that was actually much weaker than already existing adhesives. However, one of his colleagues used the glue to his advantage by sticking it onto bits of paper to mark his books. Thus, post-it notes were eventually born!
  • Inkjet printer — this useful invention came about after a Canon engineer was accidentally resting his hot iron on his pen. The ink was ejected from the point of the pen a few moments later and thus an idea for the inkjet printer was born.
  • Slinky — this simple toy that kids love was once meant to be a meter designed to monitor power on naval battleships that Richard Jones was working on.
  • Fireworks — legend has it an unknown cooked created fireworks thousands of years ago in China when he accidentally mixed together charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter. Then, the mixture exploded after being compressed in a bamboo tube.
  • Microwave — Percy Spencer was conducting a radar-related research project with a new vacuum tube when the candy in his pocket began melting. He then experimented with cooking popcorn and thus, quite accidentally, the microwave was born!

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