Saturday, December 17, 2016

When did mistakes and failure become expensive?

Thursday night's #elemmathchat was lead by Matt Vaudrey.  The topic was Making Failure Cheap .  It was really a great conversation that got me thinking about mistakes, failure, and getting students to take risks.  If you missed it here is the Storify.  You should really check it out.

These conversations are not new.  With all of the work about mindset by both Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler these conversations have been at the forefront of educational conversations for years.  The struggle is that progress really seems to be slow, so the conversations continue.  Even before these great researchers, teachers have been trying to help students have confidence in their abilities.  Especially as a middle school teacher, where even the seemingly confident students struggle with self esteem, math growth stems from students' confidence in themselves.  If discourse is the key to deeper understanding we need students who are willing to put their ideas out there for others to discuss.

As I reflect on this, I start to wonder why?

  • Why does this seem like such a difficult task?  
  • Why are students worried about having wrong answers?  
  • Why is speaking in class such a big step for so many kids? 
  • If everything I say, do, and model in my classroom makes it a safe place to be wrong and make mistakes, why, in my classroom, is this still an issue?

Think about the words mistake for a minute.
Here is Google's definition:

Here is one from

To be honest, neither one sounds like something I would want to do.  No wonder students, who are trying to find their self worth and identity, don't want to be seen this way.

Last night, my kids and I were shoveling snow.  Well, their shovels were sadly still in the attic so one person was shoveling.  We were sweeping, squeegeeing, and scraping with a garden hoe.  This sort of thing is not uncommon in our house.  We try to be creative thinkers and problems solvers.  My 6 year old son had a push broom and was pulling snow with it.  I started to correct him and said, "Oh no honey. That is a push broom, you should push with it." Why?  I didn't seem to have an issue with the fact that it wasn't a shovel and he was using it with snow.  Why did he have to push?  So I corrected myself instead, "You know what, that way is working.  You keep it up.  What a great way to show that there is more than one way to do something."  A minute later he stopped and said to me, "You know mom, when I pull I end up pulling the snow towards me and I have to walk in it.  If I push I am clearing my own path. That must be why it is called a push broom."

Where do you see the mistakes in that story?  
Was it that we were shoveling with items other than shovels?
Was it my son pulling the push broom?
Was it me trying to impose my understanding of push broom use on him?

Like all things in my math classroom, it really comes down to your justification.  I guess by definition they could all be described as mistakes.  However I choose to see none of them as mistakes.  It was a very real everyday moment of learning for both my son and me.  None of the learning would have taken place if the events had not unfolded the way they did.  Different lessons would have been learned if I had corrected his use of the push broom or not cleared snow because we didn't have shovels.

Every day, in every moment, our children are learning lessons.  As teachers, we may be more aware of what we say and what opportunities we allow our students and our own children.  The perception of mistakes, however, is formed in and out of our classroom.  So I am left with these questions:

  • Mark Chubb talks about learning for problem solving versus learning through problem solving.  Is there a difference between learning from mistakes versus learning through mistakes?  
  • What can we do to help support parents in this understanding?
  • Is there a way to share parenting strategies that foster risk taking and learning through mistakes?  There is a Talking Math With Your Kids blog and newsletter.  Perhaps a Talking Mistakes with Your Kids? (What a horrible title, the goal would actually be to Stop Talking Mistakes with Your Kids since I don't really believe they are mistakes, but you get the idea.)
Please share any thoughts or ideas you have in the comment section.  I would love to hear them.


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  2. Love your story about the broom pushing. Your 6 year old son (I have 7 and 4 year old sons) was coming to understand how something novel (to him) works. He has curiosity and a reason to figure out this broom, shoveling thing everyone seems to be doing. A budding scientists, mathematician in the making (as everyone is).

    It's hard when those around you (experienced adults, peers) already seem to have figured it out. No one likes being the outsider...that may be one reason "Why are students worried about having wrong answers?"

    Facilitating/encouraging the more experienced people (including ourselves as parents and teachers) to put emphasis on the process of doing the job, rather than accomplishing the job (in this case shoveling snow), may help.

    Some examples:

    "I notice we are all shoveling the snow in different ways...that's cool!"
    "I like how you're using that broom...that's a new approach to me....can you show me how to do that?"
    "This is awesome that we are all shoveling snow together!"

    I wonder how statements like these can apply to the more formal K-12 mathematics classroom setting. It seems possible.

    1. Craig,
      You bring up a good point about students noticing others figuring things out sooner. Our society is definitely one of wanting quick results and everything can feel like a competition (especially in the eyes of a middle schooler).
      I think you are right that it is the statements we make (like your examples) that will start to chip away at ideas of what should be.