August 10, 2017

Taking care of small mistakes

Maarit Rossi

Teacher, an author, the founder of Paths to Math and one of the 10 winners of Global Teacher Prize 2016

Maths class at school is a very safe place to make mistakes. At best, mistakes result in discussions about different ways of thinking and students can learn from listening to one other. If these mistakes are dealt with in constructive ways, they can strengthen and encourage students to try new approaches also later on. The 2016 PISA results showed that a positive attitude towards mathematics and students’ trust in their own capabilities is connected to their ability to solve problems.

Last spring, an online news report stated that a field at Finland’s Beach Volley SM tournament was filled with 300 kg of sand. What? Yes, you read it right. After half an hour, the text was amended. The field would in fact utilise 300 000 kg of sand instead. Also, this spring we read about President Trump’s budget failure – a two trillion-US dollar blunder!

Mistakes made in the classroom are splendid grounds for pedagogical conversations. The mistakes that appear in the media are totally another issue, however. They cause displeasure and shame for those who have made them – they might even create difficulties at work. A sense of proportion and experience in dealing with large numbers would have helped to avoid this trouble.

This can be taught from an early age. The combination of estimation and rounding makes for a good learning exercise at school. For example: bring different amounts of different objects to the classroom, like paper clips, nails, macaroni, beans and cords. Then put the objects onto different numbered desks. Let the students circulate and estimate the amounts without touching the objects, rounding the amounts to tens, hundreds and thousands.

All the members of the group have to agree on the estimated amounts. When they have checked all the desks every group gets one type of objects to count. Now they have a situation where they must negotiate amongst themselves to find a sensible solution for doing this. Then the groups write down the exact amounts and practice rounding again.

Alongside reducing the potential for unnecessary blunders in future, this is also a very simple way for students to practice co-operation, negotiation skills and how to find a good strategy.

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