A recent blog post from Math Ed Matters had the following pedagogical insight:

How do we encourage students to tinker with mathematics? As a culture, it seems we are afraid of making mistakes. This seems especially bad when it comes to how most students approach mathematics. But making and then reflecting on mistakes is a huge part of learning. Just think about learning to walk or riding a bike. Babies are brave enough to take a first step even though they have no idea what will happen. My kids fell down a lot while learning to walk. But they kept trying.

I want my students to approach mathematics in the same way. Try stuff, see what happens, and if necessary, try again. But many of them resist tinkering. Too many students have been programmed to think that all problems are solvable, that there is exactly one way to approach each problem, and that if they can’t solve a problem in five minutes or less, they must be doing something wrong. But these are myths, and we must find ways to remove the misconceptions. The first step is to encourage risk taking.

A few months ago, Stan Yoshinobu addressed this topic over on The IBL Blog in a post titled “Destigmatizing Mistakes.” I encourage you to read his whole post, but here is a highlight:

Productive mistakes and experimentation are necessary ingredients of curiosity and creativity. A person cannot develop dispositions to seek new ideas and create new ways of thinking without being willing to make mistakes and experiment. Instructors can provide frequent, engaging in-class activities that dispel negative connotations of mistakes, and simultaneously elevate them to their rightful place as a necessary component in the process of learning.

Here are a few related questions I have:

How do we encourage students to tinker with mathematics?

How do we destigmatize mistakes in the mathematics classroom?

How do we encourage and/or reward risk taking?

What are the obstacles to addressing the items above and how do we remove these obstacles?

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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