Mistakes in the Math Classroom: Bring ‘em On!

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Web_Stipek_Math Interventions Diagnosing Student Errors-blog1Each time your students gather for math time, you probably have the same goals—to motivate them, teach them how to find the “right” answer, and (hopefully) prepare them to earn a good grade or test score.

What you don’t plan on them doing is make mistakes. But they will. And when it’s the same mistake over and over, you feel like pulling your hair out. How many times have you muttered to yourself, This kid isn’t even trying…

Mistakes in math, as we all know, are inevitable. But you shouldn’t dread them, ignore them, or allow them to cause you to run for the Tums. We challenge you to view mistakes differently—as incredible opportunities to learn and grow. Because that’s what they are.

Think about which math student you would prefer. Anne rarely makes a mistake and is great at memorizing formulas and processes, but consequently has a superficial understanding of new concepts. Bob does make mistakes, but simply shrugs his shoulders, thinks “oh well,” and moves on, never attempting to figure out why he made them. Leslie makes mistakes, admits to her mistakes, and works to understand and correct them.

Most teachers would prefer to have a classroom of Leslies who are making mistakes and learning from them. But there’s a catch. You don’t want to cheer every time a “Leslie” goofs up, especially if it’s done in a moment of thoughtlessness or laziness. That creates an “it-doesn’t- matter” climate that can infect your classroom like wildfire.

You do want to turn a math mistake into a positive learning experience. And that happens when you respond to it in a thoughtful and productive way. For example:

• Support good mistakes—the kind that uncover misconceptions about math rooted in long-held beliefs. And remember the importance of timing. A mistake made early in your teaching of a new concept is different—and easier to correct—than one made later in the process.

• Don’t allow repeated mistakes. A mistake made once or twice is okay. A mistake made over and over is a failure to learn.

• Don’t “rescue” a student who makes a mistake. We all do it—correct an error on the spot or mark it wrong on a paper and show the “correct” way to do the task.  Each time you do this, you miss a great opportunity to dig into the reason why the mistake occurred in the first place.

• Throw the mistake back to your class, instead of you “preaching” in front of your class about the rules. Let your students work together to solve it. Collectively, they’ll find the answer and everyone—your high achievers and struggling students—will learn in the process. The wisdom of crowds—believe it!

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Want to learn the best strategies and intervention tools for helping your struggling students succeed in math? Check out SDE’s webinar Math Interventions—Diagnosing Student Errors (Grades 1–5) by veteran classroom teacher and Singapore Math expert Anni Stipek.

What do you think? Are you embracing mistakes in your classroom? We’d love to hear about your experiences!

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