In addition to square root radicals and scientific notation, Westridge 7th grade math students are taught a lesson that will carry over to all their classes and to life: that mistakes are not only a normal part of learning, they are also one of our strongest learning tools. They hear this directly from many teachers, including their math teacher Val Brownsmith, who has implemented some new techniques, including using worksheets that have work spaces allocated for “attempt 1,” “attempt 2,” and “attempt 3,” to further normalize mistakes in the classroom.
Beginning with the assumption that students won’t get the answer right on the first try relieves the pressure and creates a safe space for learning to occur. The worksheets she uses also encourage students to look at how they approached the problem and analyze where they went wrong in their first (or second) attempt.
Another method she recently implemented is to return tests without grades on them. Instead, she highlights mistakes that were made in the problems, and encourages students to help each other figure out what went wrong before they get their grades in the next class. Without a big red letter at the top of the page, students are more willing to share their work and collaborate to find the solution and learn from their mistakes.
“I’ve seen a rise in anxiety around mistake making, especially in young women,” said Brownsmith. “I want to talk to my students about the fact that mistakes are a normal part of life, and that to avoid learning from them means that you miss out on real growth. I’m hoping that some of these techniques will take root in our students and help them to normalize something that can seem daunting.”
Brownsmith notes that in sports mistakes are viewed as a learning tool. As a part of athletic training, students watch video replays of games, analyzing what went wrong, and developing a plan to fix any mistakes moving forward. That’s exactly what she wants to see happen in her classroom.
It turns out that making mistakes is physiologically beneficial. When a mistake is made, synapses fire in the brain, causing it to grow. So, Brownsmith explained, your brain will grow more if you make a mistake than if you simply got the right answer the first time.