What has been your best mistake?

Today I’m thinking about mistakes. I’ve been studying with Jo Boaler’s course, How to Learn Math for Teachers (XEDUC115N), offered through the Stanford Center for Professional Development. I can’t recommend the course enough. I’m not even halfway through and have already changed my mindset around mathematics. The course is self-paced but interactive. We watch videos on our own time, respond to discussion questions and writing prompts, and interact with other students in the course through discussion forums after each video. There are due dates but they are generous; we have a few months to complete the eight session course. If you are interested in enrolling, you can read more and register for $99USD here.

The session I’m on at the moment deals with the importance of mistakes. Psychologist Jason Moser discovered that when we make a mistake, two synapses in our brain fire. The wild thing is that the first one fires before we even know we have made a mistake. At first, this sounds impossible, but upon reflection, it makes sense. Synapses fire when our brain is working at its hardest – on the edge, or in what Vygotsky would call the Zone of Proximal Development. In order for our brains to grow, we need to be working just hard enough that we begin to make errors. The second electrical response in the brain happens when we become aware of the mistake. We actually need to mess up in order for our brains to grow. So I feel it is not enough to say mistakes and unconventional ways of thinking are okay. We need to actively create opportunities for children to make mistakes, and we must consistently model to the class why those mistakes are important and how are brains change and evolve when we are struggling. For more on the neurology behind how mistakes grow your brain, read this short article on Jo Boaler’s website YouCubed.

My 23 seven-year-olds start with me next week, and I’m thinking carefully about how I will build a culture of resilience and even joy around mistake-making. I will need to deliberately incorporate into my planning ways in which I am modelling celebrating mistakes in a genuine way, without being too silly about it. Knowing that some of my students will come in feeling comfortable making mistakes and some will have a paralysing fear of making mistakes, I will need to consider how to gradually introduce mistake-making into our classroom culture to the point that children are comfortable with it and it does not create even more anxiety. How do you model mistake-making with your learners and children? What is a mistake you are glad you made because of what you learned from it?

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