Learning From Math Mistakes

math anxiety, math tutoring, math help, matific , mistakes, math mistakesEveryone’s heard the proverb “you learn from your mistakes.” Until recently, I mainly applied that phrase to drunken escapades and a small collection of ex-boyfriends. However, I find that I’m repeating the mantra to myself regularly as I watch my daughter stumble her way through a playground. In fact sometimes it’s the only reason I stay there and watch as she bruises herself on every piece of equipment.

I guess the phrase will stay with me for a while as my toddler learns to read and write and eventually do math. I hope she gets used to making mistakes and doesn’t take them as an immediate sign of failure but a symptom of progress.

Mistakes in math are particularly important for learning for the following reasons:


When a child makes a mistake, you can see a hiccup in their way of thinking. You may notice they struggle with subtraction but not addition, and you can help them quickly before their errors begin to escalate.

On the other hand, you have a window into the way they think. One method of performing a calculation may be useless in a particular instance, but could be helpful in another.

Show Effort

Teachers will not be frustrated with a child who makes errors. They will, however, be frustrated with a child who comes into the classroom saying that their homework was too hard, and they didn’t do it.

An editor once told me, “You can edit bad words, but you can’t edit no words.” The same applies for a math. There’s no learning to be had from slamming the textbook shut and putting on the television.

Work The Brain

Making mistakes teach a child how to think. You cannot enter a gym on a whim and suddenly bench press 100 pounds. Making mistakes are those light-weight workouts that help train and strengthen the brain. A mistake means that your child’s brain was challenged, and wrestling that challenge is healthy and beneficial.

Ownership Of Learning

Making a mistake forces a student to pause. Instead of racing ahead, they have to examine their error and grapple with their lack of understanding. Instead of relying on the teacher to learn, mistakes help students diagnose their problems and overcome them. There is a sense of power in being responsible for your own learning.

Being OK With Failure

My pet hate at school was vocalised by a kind, bookish girl with mousy hair and braces on her teeth. Why did she bother me? She would always top the class in math and say that she didn’t study. This is the equivalent of the supermodel who claims to exist solely on burgers. Friends who have gone through IVF see it in the young couple who announce they are expecting and that their pregnancy was a surprise, despite having unprotected hanky panky.  

Making mistakes and learning from them teaches your child honesty. It teaches your child that sometimes it takes a while to get good at something, which is OK and it also shows them that practice helps everything.

Indirectly, your child who says “I found subtraction quite hard at first, but taught myself to understand it” will be infinitely more approachable than the child who says they didn’t study but got 100%.    

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