## Making mistakes in mathematics – by R N A de Silva

Source : island

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has not tried something new “, said Albert Einstein. Although mistakes are inevitable in life, learning mathematics can be extra challenging due to the pressure of having to come up with the ‘correct’ answer as it generally demands precision and accuracy. But recent neurological research indicates that making mistakes is actually good as it not only provides opportunities for learning but also contributes to the growth of the brain. Mistakes play a crucial role in the learning process and they can be considered as stepping stones on the path to mastery. Embracing mistakes will help students in building the persistence required for success in mathematics. Making mistakes will help enhance critical thinking and problem-solving skills as they prompt students to reconsider their approach, identify the source of the mistake and explore alternative solutions.

A fear of failure may hinder learning and repress creativity. It should be stressed to the students to consider mistakes as not a sign of incompetence but an opportunity for improvement. With such a mindset they are more likely to approach mathematical challenges with confidence and enthusiasm.

In 1994, researchers conducted a landmark study comparing the US education system to Japan’s education system. They found that although American teachers praised students for correct answers, they ignored incorrect responses. No discussion took place about the correct or incorrect answers. They found that the Japanese teachers had discussions about the obtained answers. Students would learn why an incorrect answer was wrong and a correct answer was right. This reflection and reinforcement would lead to much better learning. Letting students make mistakes and learn from them was found to be a key reason Japanese students outperformed Americans on global math tests.

**Mistake is an example of something that does not work**

Examples of situations that do not work can be just as valuable as those which work out. The Thomas Edison, who invented the lightbulb, considered the attempts that had not worked as an accomplishment of learning how it should not be done in his long journey towards the invention. His quotation “I have not failed; I have learnt 10,000 ways that won’t work” is an extremely important lesson to all of us.

According to the nature of the lesson, I sometimes make mistakes purposely when teaching students. In this way, I can figure out whether they are involved in the thinking process to the extent of being able to spot the error. It also gives satisfaction to the students, who feel that they have corrected an error made by their teacher. Further, that also helps students understand that anybody can make mistakes and they are part of the learning process.

**Mistakes lead you to the correct path**

Spotting an error and thereafter the thought process behind why that mistake was made may show the correct path and will help in preventing it from happening again because of the hands-on experience gained. Let us consider some examples.

(1) Square -2.

The answer is not -4. The correct method is -2 x -2 which gives +4.

The importance of the consideration of the sign of the number is shown here.

(2) Subtract 2x – 3 from x2 + 5x – 7.

The answer is not x2 + 3x -10. The correct working should be as follows:

x2 + 5x – 7 – (2x – 3) = x2 + 5x – 7 – 2x + 3 = x2 + 3x – 4.

The importance of using brackets can be seen clearly in this situation.

(3) Solve x2 = 5x.

A student giving the answer x = 5 may wonder why full marks were not awarded. The correct working should be x2 – 5x = 0 followed by x (x – 5) = 0 which gives two correct values for x. Therefore x = 0 or 5.

The cancellation of a variable is not acceptable in mathematics.

Mistakes create an opportunity for deeper understanding

Often mistakes allow students to clear misunderstandings and enhance conceptual understanding or skills-based procedures. Here are some examples.

(4) Find the square root of 25.

The answer is 5 and not +5 and -5, as the square root of a number is always positive. However, if the question was to solve an equation such as x2 = 25, then there are two correct solutions: x = +5 or x = -5.

The difference between the two has to be clearly understood.

(5) Find the square root of 94 correct to 3 significant figures.

The answer is not 9.69 because the calculated value is 9.6953.

As the number after 9 is 5 (or more) the correct answer has to be written as 9.70.

Appropriate approximation is an important concept in mathematics.

Mistakes help you to make connections with reality Mistakes may help students to focus on mathematical reasoning thereby making connections with the real world.

Consider a problem of finding the number of people in a village. The answer cannot involve fractions or decimals as you are dealing with people.

If the problem is about the annual interest rate offered by a bank, can it be as high as 50%?

If a set of numbers include numbers in the range from 1 to 10, can the mean or median be 12?

The role of the teachers and parents are of paramount importance when dealing with mistakes made by students. Here are some suggestions to make mistakes a positive experience for students.

Consider mistakes as an unavoidable and necessary experience

We all make mistakes in life. Why should it be different when learning mathematics? Mistakes happen and we can make them work to our advantage. Accept mistakes as a part of the learning process. I have come across many who hated the subject because the teachers considered them as ‘stupid’ due to some mistakes made. ‘Stupid’ is a feeling of shame and our natural reaction is to avoid its source. Instead, we should consider mistakes as an asset to the deepening of understanding a concept or a skill.

**Provide timely feedback**

Recognise that the earlier a problem is discovered, the easier it is to fix. Probing questions can offer students different approaches for reflecting on their thinking. Help students to overcome mistakes on their own. Students who fixes a mistake on their own experience personal success. Such an experience may lead to enhanced motivation and self-esteem and also persistence in the problem-solving process.

Analyze the mistakes and take appropriate remedial measures

**The mathematical mistakes can be divided into three broad categories: careless, computational and conceptual.**

Careless errors may occur due to not paying attention to details and hastiness. Some examples are misreading the question, not following directions, making mistakes with negative signs and writing wrong numbers. These can be overcome by training the students to read the question carefully and understanding what needs to be done before attempting and the cultivation of neat and orderly presentation of work.

Computational error is a mistake made with an arithmetic manipulation. When such an error occurs, all subsequent work will be affected by that error. This happens mostly due to the hastiness in arriving at the final result. Usually, such an error can be detected by checking the answer after solving. This detection will be easier if all the steps have been shown and the work presented in a logical order.

Conceptual errors occur due to the misunderstanding of the underlying concepts. Such errors are more important to be corrected than the careless and computational errors as it deals with mathematical understanding. It is an indication of a lack of necessary prerequisite knowledge to solve the problem. When this happens, foundational gaps need to be identified and appropriately fixed by the teacher or a tutor, as it may need time and effort. If a teacher notices the same conceptual error from multiple students, the teacher has to go back and reteach the topic.

Mistakes made by students provide an opportunity to get a deeper understanding of the taught concept. They can be considered part of the learning process if it is examined properly. The identification and analysis of the mistakes made by students help understand their mathematical thinking.

“When one door closes, another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open to us” said Alexander Graham Bell.

The author is an educational consultant at the Overseas School of Colombo and a senior examiner for mathematics at the International Baccalaureate Organization, UK.