focusing only on the answers in maths learning

Why focusing on the right answer, is the wrong answer

We’ve all been there,  someone asks you a question you’re supposed to know, and your mind goes blank. This probably happened more when you were a child, but even as adults we can suffer from mental brain freeze. So what would 20% of that be? How much do we each have to pay if the total bill is X? What number do we times 2 by to get Y? Perhaps if it was a written question, where we were in the safety of our own heads, we’d work it out comfortably. So what actually happens to us, what happens to students when they are put under pressure?

The short answer is fear. The fear of seeming stupid or silly,  the fear of being laughed at, the fear of getting it wrong.  We are conditioned from a young age to fear to get things wrong. It’s just the way we’ve structured our world. We live in a world where being wrong is dangerous. The need to always be right is so compelling. Those who “get things right” are seen as smarter, more successful and even more powerful.  How ironic then that some of the most successful people of all, often admit to the number of times they got “things wrong” before, in fact, they got it right.

Michael Jordan once said, “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Why focusing on the right answer, is the wrong answer

This is why, as educators and parents, focusing on students “getting things right” is actually the wrong answer. We need to let children see that getting things wrong is a vital part of the learning process. If you never get things wrong it could actually be an indication of staying in a comfort zone, never really allowing yourself to be challenged. Challenge is essential to progress. It has been said that all progress comes from challenge. Challenges can be fearful. But rising above the challenge means also rising above fear, and stepping into the unknown.

Fearing being wrong stifles a child’s’, and indeed our own, ability to think clearly. Problem-solving is a crucial part of mathematics and indeed all aspects of life. Our ability to deal with real-life problems is greatly impacted by how we understand what it means to be wrong or right.

Talking about being wrong and right in the context of teaching mathematics is a tricky one. Mathematics, unlike many other subjects, has so much objectivity and very little subjectivity. Put simply, it is often the case in maths that there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answer. However, we often forget what the point of the right and wrong answer is in the first place. The point is that being able to demonstrate the right answer, the correct answer tends to imply that you understand how to get to that answer. For example, to say that my local petrol station is 5 miles away, I only know this because I have journeyed to it. If I had never been there I would not have known. (Unless I quickly checked google, which would be the equivalent of a student quickly checking google!) When I first went to the petrol station I may not have known far away it was. It is because I went through that experience and learnt the journey why I now know. In fact, the more often I make that journey the more certain I am that it is 5 miles away.

The journey towards knowing how to do something or why something works, for example how to add fractions or why equivalent fractions are equal, necessarily involves a prior condition of not knowing. It is also the acceptance of not knowing something, recognising what we don’t know, that allows us to make space to then realise it. We have to be careful that we do not teach children to equate not knowing something with being wrong, and therefore with being stupid and in its extreme form, therefore, being unworthy of reward or praise.

It is best suited that children equate the experience of learning as an experience which will necessarily mean sometimes being wrong. When being right or wrong is tied so closely with a child’s self-esteem, the fear of being wrong can take over. If a child or student knows that getting things wrong is a valuable experience which facilitates rather than damages their self-image, then learning has room to develop. They will more likely enjoy the experience of learning.

As a teacher, I still do ask children questions in front of the class, as I do not necessarily think to do so should be avoided. Neither do I only pick the more confident or more able students to answer questions. Here are some practical points teachers and indeed parents can use so that students and children realise that the emphasis is not so much on being right, even when we are asking a maths question which clearly has a right and wrong answer.

  • Give students time to think and let them know that taking time to think is a good thing.
  • Let students know that getting the wrong answer means that there is still something they can learn (today). Remind them that learning is exciting.
  • Reward their effort at attempting to get the right answer more than rewarding them for actually getting the right answer.
  • Allow children to realise that getting things wrong is a necessary part of the learning experience. (After all, trial and error are how we got here!).
  • Express more pleasure over how confidently a student answers a question than whether it was right, for example, “No David that’s not quite right, but great enthusiasm! Perhaps you could think about….”
  • Don’t just say no that’s wrong, give students indications of how they can alter their thinking slightly in order to get to another solution.
  • See answers as solutions, outcomes which solve something, rather than as abstract conditions which are only relative, opposite and better than the condition of being wrong.

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