Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Teaching Resolution: Make More Mistakes

I have a problem with how I work in my classroom: I don't often make mistakes. I don't mean for that to sound conceited, but I generally like for people with authority to show few weaknesses and be both precise and accurate in their communication of concepts. It irks me when the principal (a former English teacher and currently moonlighting as a college professor for English education courses) writes an e-mail to the school that says something like, "We are starting this business that will be ran by..." or when our superintendent sends an e-mail to the entire district full of spelling and grammar mistakes.

I thought about it harder this past weekend, though and have come to a conclusion that this may not be the best strategy in the classroom. By limiting my own mistakes it sends a few false messages to students.

  • It implies that it is bad to make mistakes.
  • It implies that the concept or problem is (or should be) easy.
  • It puts me on another plane than my students so that they think I am way above their level and they will never be able to attain that level of understanding of the subject.

So, I am resolving to make more mistakes in my classroom. Some will be intentional; some may not be. Just today in precalculus, for example, I was trying to number our examples as we went and I put up numbers 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7, then I asked them to work through those seven problems. Those students who were paying attention got confused and corrected me. Yay!


  1. Good point, Dave.

    I think there's a balance somewhere between showing you're human (and so make mistakes), and being someone your students respect as an expert.

    But I've long thought that being comfortable in your own skin enough to admit you don't know something is a characteristic of my teachers that I really respected, and one I try to model with my students.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Well, not to sound annoyingly intellectual, but I really do know most of this stuff backwards and forwards. It's rather rare that we discuss something in class that I don't know much about. So, these mistakes I'm making are going to have to be purposeful. And then it may come across as awkward when I purposefully insert them. So far so good, though!

  3. Oh, I give my students a reward for finding my mistakes. It means they (a) enjoy finding mistakes and (b) learn that a mistake is not the end of the world, just fix it and keep going. Oh, and (c) pay close attention to everything I write on the board. (And yes, sometimes I deliberately make mistakes, and sometimes I deliberately don't correct mistakes when I make them.. and sometimes I have to be *really* obvious and say "oh, and there's a mistake somewhere on the board now, can you find it..")

  4. I have heard of another teacher doing that same sort of thing, Ian. They put a pin on at the top of the blackboard and add a paperclip for every mistake found. When the chain reaches the ground, they get a party.

  5. One of my math professors a long time ago gave me a really useful way to think about this. In the middle of making some hard, complicated point, he would turn around and say, "Remember, kids — what I'm doing up here is an ILLUSION."

    It's an illusion because we teachers have been DOING the mathematics we teach for many more years than our students. But the way we model our work can sometimes create the false impression that students should be instantly able to do the very same work at our same level of ease — even though we are giving our 4,000th demonstration of a problem or concept.

    So I say the same thing to my students now. I want to help them understand that struggle is a part of the process, and that the friction of learning is natural and not a problem.

    And when I make mistakes, I can point out that even though I've been doing this for a long time, it is still natural for ANYBODY to make mistakes!

    - Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

  6. In one class, I do the paperclip thing, and in another, I give 10 points for Gryffendor. Sometimes I'll make mistakes on purpose, and sometimes they are genuine mistakes.

    For the paperclips... that class sort of gave up. They don't hunt for mistakes anymore. The other class, Gryffendor, really latched onto things. And so they still chime up, and ask for their points.

    I suppose for me I see it depending on how consistently you work it, how much you talk about it being okay to make mistakes, and the nature of your kids...

    I talk about being wrong, taking risks, etc., all the time. And slowly, very slowly, I've seen some kids volunteer who normally wouldn't. (I do call on kids all the time who don't volunteer.) But it's been over half a year for that, for me. So I'm not very good at it.