Getting Better at Making Mistakes

math mistakes, math games, math anxiety

When you go to school, it’s very difficult to associate mistakes with anything other than failure. There’s nothing more disheartening than seeing a red cross next to an equation when all you were doing was trying to get the right answer. And unlike subjects that rely on memorization, an error in a math test is not always an indication that you didn’t study.

So how do you banish your child’s math anxiety and show them that mistakes are part of the learning process? You have to learn to look at them from a different perspective.

1) Matific’s gaming guru Guy Vardi believes that it’s all down to the environment. He advises parents and teachers and students to look at photographs of people enthralled in their video games.


gamers, math anxiety, mistakes
Photo from the 2002 “Gamers” collection by Mr Toledano


Their faces express wonder, frustration and joyful disbelief, but none of them look defeated. As Vardi points out, even though these gamers will ultimately lose at some point of the video game, none of these players look like losers. Instead, they are ready to start again and strive for a better score.

This is a contrast to many kids who tackle math problems. This photo series might be a good opportunity for a conversation about a shift in attitude, especially if you have a Minecraft-addicted child.  

2) Mistakes are diagnostic. Remember this Common Core math problem that broke the Internet? This was a child who lost points when they wrote that the working addition to 5 x 3 = 15 was 5 + 5 + 5. The teacher wanted to see five groups of three instead. Interestingly on the same paper, the same child lost marks for his array of 4 x 6. The teacher wanted four groups of six, but this child’s array showed six groups of four.

Perhaps the child has made so much money from their viral math test that they no longer need school. But if this isn’t the case, the mistake the child made here indicate a problem of understanding. One that could easily be rectified for the future.

3) On a philosophical level being able to handle a mistake, or take criticism, is actually an important life skill. Thomas Edison, one of the world’s most prolific inventors, spoke of his mistakes saying: “I am not discouraged because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

Present-day day genius Bill Gates said that “Success makes a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Even Michael Jordan embraces what he refers to as his failures. “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,” he said.

4) Mistakes can help kids let go of panic and eventually get to the right answer. A lot of math anxiety is the fear of getting something wrong; the idea of failing versus passing. Thanks to this notion children often see mistakes as a solid barrier rather than just a mere hurdle. Once a child is no longer afraid of making an error, their math anxiety should also be diminished.

Ultimately, children need to shake off that feeling of embarrassment when their answer is wrong. They don’t need to blush; they don’t need to feel ashamed. The world will not stop, for the most part, their results won’t be broadcast (unless they have parents who are strongly opposed to the current math standards). In fact, the only person who should have any memory of their mistake are themselves and only because they have learned an important lesson from the error.

Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.