To err is human
Why are we so afraid of maths? Perhaps part of the problem is some parents openly professing to being “rubbish at maths” to their children. Add to this the undermining of a school pupil’s confidence when their classmates seem to be rushing ahead through arithmetic exercises, turning what should be an engaging, joint learning experience into a 45 minute race to “win” the lesson. Another problem is that, in a packed school curriculum, feedback from your teacher is sometimes limited to the few spare seconds between the end of Maths class and the start of Geography. All these little problems can add up to make one massive anxiety-inducing core subject.
Life is tough, and breaks are hard to come by. It often feels like we’re all in competition with each other, and the pressure to succeed has never been greater. In such a cutthroat environment the thought of making even the slightest error can be terrifying; we fear that making mistakes will invariably lead to failure. But is such a mentality preventing us from truly learning? Can we ever really learn if we never make mistakes?
When looking at a marked piece of Maths homework, there may be 20 or 30 small exercises with either a tick or a cross next to them. The average maths-wary student will glance at their errors and be tempted to move on quickly, preferring to concentrate on what they got right. This is a logical self-preservation technique; if you are anxious about making a mistake, and are confronted with a big red cross, it does your self esteem no good to dwell on the mistake. Unfortunately, applying this logic can be a real impediment to true learning.
If a beginner pianist never analysed why they were hitting the wrong keys while practicing Greensleeves, they would never work out that their hand positioning needed a slight adjustment, and they would certainly never master a Rachmaninoff concerto. Much as a good pianist will scribble notes all over their sheet music, so too should a good maths student annotate their errors to discover that their logical reasoning needs a tweak. In this way both pianist and maths student, with practice, will overcome their obstacles.
The stigma attached to “getting the answer wrong” needs to be tackled head on by teachers. Mistakes should be highlighted as the first step on the path to truly learning something. Since maths is a core tool for all sciences, a lot more time in the schools’ curriculum should be set aside to allow students to make mistakes and properly analyse them. As a happy consequence, students would become more confident of understanding the course material and be rewarded with the lifelong skill of knowing how to learn.
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