The culture of mistakes

I was talking at an accreditation seminar and I asked teachers to create posters. Specifically I gave them four math questions to choose from and I asked them to use markers to put their work on the paper. In about 10 minutes they were going to switch/move papers to the right and show another solution so try to use only half the page.

I got this idea from Malcolm Swan. I had done this once before and my focus was more on the mathematics questions, how they chose them, why they chose that question, what mathematics they used…etc. The conversation the first time turned to how our students feel as they are doing mathematics. How do they feel when they are asked to share or talk about their work? It started when one group talked about how they wanted to avoid the logarithm question because they have never taught logarithms.

This was good, as I chose that question for that exact purpose (or so I tell myself after the fact). I also noticed that the groups were not really writing on the paper. They were working in pencil on a separate sheet and when they deemed their work correct, some of them took the time to transfer it to the paper using a marker.

So the second time I did the posters I told the (small) group of teachers that I had a purpose for this activity that we will go into later, but I want you to use the markers to show your work on the paper. It will be a poster to put up on the wall for the class to refer back to. I gave them about 10 min. I made a note of what the teachers were doing. I even told the group in my loud teacher voice to please use the markers to record their work.

Interesting conversation happened.

Me: Thank you everyone for your work. What were my exact instructions for this activity again?

Group Member: make a poster and put our solution on the page

M: I said solution or work?

G: silent pause Ahh, work?

M: Ok everyone, let’s hold up our posters so the room can see our work.

Many posters had only pen and maybe a bit of marker.

M: Why were you writing off to the side on a piece of paper S?

S: I was trying to remember how to do matrices.

M: Why didn’t you do that on the paper?

S: I wanted to make sure it was right first.


Ok, so I am paraphrasing or maybe my memory has put together exactly what I want for this reflection, but that was what I was trying to get at. How do we create a culture in our classroom that it is ok to make mistakes, in fact desired as we learn so much from mistakes? The teachers in the room responded with some great stories about a couple of things they do to let the student know that it is ok to make mistakes. They talked about how they make mistakes on the board and students correct them. All good, not saying that it isn’t. However, how do we create a culture among students? As they interact with each other and as they develop their mathematical identity? To me, it is a much different ballgame pointing out a mistake a teacher made compared to being that student standing up in front of their own work. Posts/work worth checking out from Malcolm Swan, Kelly O’Shea Whiteboarding Mistake Game, favorite no.


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