Why I want to see my pupils make mistakes

27th May 2016 at 00:00

“Mistakes help me learn”; “It’s not that I can’t do it – I just can’t do it yet”; “It’s not ‘I don’t know’, it’s ‘I’ll give it a go’.”

We’re all learning to pepper classroom conversations with the language of “growth mindsets” – to encourage children to keep trying in the face of tricky problems and to see mistakes as opportunities to learn.

I find that this is having a significant impact. The recent series of growth mindset videos produced by the makers of online behaviour-management platform ClassDojo have really captured the imaginations of my six- and seven-year-olds.

I regularly hear them talking animatedly about “working their brains like a muscle” and “the power of yet”.

However, it occurred to me recently that we still don’t give children an awful lot of space for mistakes. Of course, there is space for making and responding to errors – in discussion, for example – but the average maths worksheet still tends to have a small box for the “right answer”.

If you get the answer wrong, you either need to erase your mistake (the content of which might actually provide valuable information about the nature of your misconceptions) or squash a second attempt in beside the first. Is this really sending the message that we value mistakes? Is it enabling us to see what misconceptions are inherent in a child’s thinking? So, I decided to make some room.

At the end of a unit in which I’d introduced my class to early multiplication and division, I gave them a worksheet of sums. But instead of having one box for the right answers, it had three. The boxes were labelled “first try”, “second try” and “third try”. As I handed out the sheet, I explained why the boxes were there and said that some pupils might not use all of them – they might be happy with their first try – but there was extra space if needed.

The response was really interesting. There was a palpable sense from some children that these little spaces were giving them more room to experiment, to “give it a go” and build their confidence. (Although one of my perfectionists couldn’t bring himself to leave in the “wrong” answers and quietly rubbed out any mistakes in the first try box, replacing them with the correct answers.)

The most interesting thing was indeed what was written on the page before the right answer was reached – the information that’s not normally there. It gave me a more rounded sense of each child’s thinking as they worked through these problems.

So, what next? Where else can I make more space? Gather more information? Where else should I retain – and value – the first, second and third attempts?

Susannah Jeffries is a recently qualified primary teacher in Fife


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