Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Power of Mistakes in Math

I am reading this amazing book by Jo Boaler called Mathematical Mindsets.
In it she references Carol Dweck's research on growth mindset and takes it a step further to make some needed connections to math teaching and learning in the United States and Great Britain. She discusses some work by psychologist Jason Moser. He studied the neural mechanisms that operate in people's brains when they make mistakes. He stated that there are two possible responses in the brain when we make a mistake. The first is called an ERN response which is an increased electrical activity when the brain has conflict between a correct response and an error. This brain activity occurs whether or not a person knows they have made a mistake. The second response, called a Pe, is a brain signal when we know we've made a mistake. It happens when we know we've made the mistake and we pay attention to the error. Moser's study is interesting because it shows that we don't even have to be aware that we've made a mistake for brain sparks to occur. Moser concluded two interesting things. First, they found that students' brains reacted with greater ERN and Pe responses when they made mistakes than when their answers were correct. Second, they found that brain activity was greater following a mistake for students who had a growth mindset compared to those with a more fixed mindset. Those people with growth mindsets had a greater awareness of their errors were more likely to go back and correct errors. So, there was a greater chance with these people that more brain sparks were likely to occur.

All this brain research is interesting, but what can we do in our classrooms to change the way children feel about making mistakes? Historically, math has always been so focused on getting the correct answer that it is hard to change our way of thinking about wrong answers. We really need to do things in our classroom to change that message.  There's a great idea in the book about a teacher who starts math class by asking students to crumble up a piece of paper. Then students throw it at the board thinking about the feeling they had when they have made mistakes in math.  Then students get their papers back, smooth them out and trace all the crumple lines with markers. The teacher explains that the crumple lines all represent brain growth that we experience when we make mistakes. Then the students keep these papers in a math folder or notebook.
Another idea referenced in the book is something called "My favorite mistake." When students are solving problems in math, choose a wrong answer that has a lot of right things in it, but there's just one little conceptual mistake. Share that with the class and focus on all the right things in the answer. Then focus on the mistake and how students can learn from it.  There's a great video from the Learning Channel called "My Favorite No" where an middle school math teacher does something like this. Doing things like this can start to change our students' thinking about mistakes.
I hope that these two ideas are things that you might be able to use with your own students.  Stay tuned- I will share a lot more ideas and insights from this amazing book.

No comments:

Post a Comment