Why We Can Only Learn From Our Mistakes
As I sat in the bookstore café, flipping through a stack of magazines, I heard the conversation one table over as it mingled in with the general din of the room—coffee machines hissing, store music churning. The words I overheard had to do with Xs and variables and coefficients—algebra, easily my least favorite subject.
I glanced up and saw two kids settled in with open laptops and notebooks; it was tutoring session in progress, a high school-age girl explaining algebra to a 12ish-year-old boy, who listened intently.
What perked up my ears was when The Tutor offered praise: “That’s great! When you get something wrong, that means your brain is growing!”
“My brain grows when I get something wrong?” asked The Student, looking for the catch.
“Yes,” she confirmed. “Your brain doesn’t grow when you get things right, only when you get them wrong.”
“So, I could get all of the problems wrong on my test tomorrow and my brain would grow more than if I got them right,” he challenged. “And got a bad grade ….”
“Technically, yes,” she said. “Even if you got a bad grade. If you got them all wrong, and went back and figured out what you did wrong on each one and how to do it correctly, then your brain would grow bigger and you would get more benefit than the good grade.”
I was impressed with the tutor, and googled around on the topic some later that day, finding pages of stories on how mistakes can grow our brains; there’s even a movement to teach math students that making mistakes is a positive (it must be working).
A recent New York Times Numbersplay column by Gary Anionic quotes Stanford University professor Jo Boaler, author of the 2016 book Mathematical Mindsets: “The best evidence we have on this is that your brain grows even if you’re not aware you’ve made a mistake because it’s the time when your brain is struggling and challenged. That is the time when brains are sparking and firing.”
Boaler goes on to say good teachers have known and said that we can learn from our mistakes for a long time. “But this is a much more powerful message: that we can learn only from making mistakes. We need kids making mistakes. If kids are not making mistakes—if they’re not struggling—we’re limiting their brain growth.”
So, full disclosure, in college, I took this course called Math Anxiety, designed for music majors and others who don’t “do” math, and I’m not going to rush out and get a math book to grow my brain just now (apologies to all of the brilliant math people in my life—Luke, grandma is not the example here). But I love the point that the professor makes about getting stuff wrong—it can only be good for you. The Tutor had it right.