K-12 Momentum | May 2024

Teacher teaching math to a young student

Dear Colleagues,

I’m ALWAYS embarrassed when I make a tyop. Ugh. Typo. But I survive my mistake to write again.

Math can be more complicated. With math, mistakes are not just unavoidable; they are essential. When students are encouraged to explore, experiment, and, yes, fail, they build resilience and develop a robust problem-solving mindset. Mistakes are a key part of math! In Quanta magazine recently, the topologist Danny Calgary discusses learning and growing from mistakes and disappointment in math.

But for students, making mistakes can lead them to abandon math rather than persist and succeed. The foundation recently supported the Math Narrative Project (mathnarrative.org) to help teachers, parents, and the students themselves to recognize that mistakes are just part of improving. As it turns out (and I suspect most parents know this), math is an emotional subject. Fractions, decimals, algebra—all come at a time when students are forming their academic identity, acutely aware of the opinions of their peers, and feel very protective. In that environment, it is easy to see how a mistake can be devastating. It may be easier for students to conclude they aren’t a math person, or aren’t even that smart, than to risk getting something wrong in front of their peers.

But teachers and adults can change that using tools like the resources on the Math Narrative Project website. I also love how the teacher in the video “My Favorite No” normalizes making mistakes in the most low-tech of ways. Watch the subtle things she does to normalize making mistakes: re-copying their work in her own handwriting so that the student who made the mistake is not called out, saying how many “nos” there were in the class so that kids can see how they were not alone in making an error. Building grit and growth mindsets - I feel the spirits of Angela Duckworth and David Yeager visiting that class!

My Favorite No (a math assessment technique) from Luna Productions on Vimeo.

To be sure, getting to the right answer matters for students, teachers, and Gates Foundation staff alike— but making mistakes, understanding them, and persevering to solve any problem helps all of us improve. Creating a safe space not only to make mistakes but to learn from them is an essential element of this equation.

Have a great summer!

Bob Hughes
Director, K-12 Education

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