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Mathematics and the Power of Mistakes…….

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”  Albert Einstein


Mistakes are essential for learning. If students can accept challenges and learn from their mistakes they will be on the way to having a stronger, smarter brain.

I often see a student who lacks confidence in their ability to answer maths questions. If asked if they would like an ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ question they will invariably choose the easy option. Why do students seek to avoid challenge?  What is it that makes them feel uncomfortable? Can we get them to view a difficult question as a positive option and an opportunity to become more intelligent?

There are many reasons why a student may lack confidence and choose an easier path; sometimes the student has developed the idea that they cannot do maths, or they may have experienced embarrassment getting a maths question wrong.  The result is they seek to avoid questions they view as difficult.

The myth of a ‘maths person’ is very damaging. We need to share with students the concept that no-one is born with a maths brain, and no- one is born without one. Everyone’s brain can learn and grow, and everyone can improve at mathematics.

Mindset is also important to success. When a student says ‘I can’t do long division’ or ‘I can’t do maths’ teach them to add ‘yet’ to the end of the sentence. Maths is always possible- it requires time, persistence and practice. Practice, practice, and more practice will lead to improvement in skillset and increased confidence will follow. Struggles need to be viewed as a chance to improve and understand. Students need to know that making mistakes is essential in maths. Mistakes provide the opportunity to learn.

The emotion that comes from doing something that you thought you would never be able to do is powerful. Research shows us that by challenging your brain you can change your intelligence. The brain is like a muscle; the more you use it the stronger it gets. Scientists have shown that as the brain is challenged to learn, the connections in the brain multiply and get stronger.

The more your brain is challenged to learn the more the brain cells grow. Your brain grows the most not when you get a question right but when you get a question wrong. This is exciting as it demonstrates that when a student faces a challenge; makes a mistake; reviews what went wrong and processes the feedback; this is when their brain grows the most. If students can accept challenges and learn from their mistakes they will be on the way to having a stronger, smarter brain.

Encouragement when mistakes are made can allow students to experience the joy of improvement, and therefore lead to a change in attitude when faced with difficult questions. By learning through challenge, everyone’s brain can grow, and everyone can improve at mathematics.

Colette Lurshay September 2018

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