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The beauty of mistakes blogs

July 12, 2012

Two of the best new blogs to appear in the past month are MathMistakes by Michael Perhsan (@mpershan), and it’s wonderfully shameless ripoff, Physics Mistakes, by Kelly O’Shea.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a teacher is that while it’s easy to identify student mistakes, it is hard to take those mistakes—a few scratches on paper, or an utterance in discussion, and get inside the head of the student to help that student transform those mistakes into learning. It’s a dark art, and I can say that I worked for years not even realizing that this is something I should be doing. I thought my job was to grade the test and spend the most amount of my time adding up points off to calculate a number at the top of a page.

But when you really dig into the art of examining student thinking, you realize two things: 1. there’s no way you’re going to get a computer or algorithm to do this sort of work and 2. you need a lot of practice to get good at this.

Thankfully, Michael and Kelly have now created these blogs where teachers can get this sort of practice looking at a unfamiliar piece of paper and try to make sense of what the student is thinking, followed by how one should follow up with the student to help take the “next step toward understanding.” This is huge, and I think these blogs have the potential to be even more. As Kelly mentioned in a tweet tonight that it would be great to see students get excited about seeing their mistakes featured on these blogs, not that we want to have student work be publicly identifiable, but in some way, it might be nice for students to see how their mistakes are opportunities for learning, and not just for the students, but for a large community of teachers. I think there’s also a real possibility that students might one day find these blogs useful. Wouldn’t it be a great way to study to pull up a random mistake, try the problem yourself, and compare your work to the mistake and then try to explain the thinking of both? Wouldn’t it be nice to try to solve a problem and see that someone else made the same mistake as you, and that half a dozen teachers then offered comments about how you could improve your understanding?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2012 12:38 pm

    Thanks for the shout out!🙂

  2. chrisharrow permalink
    July 15, 2012 10:27 am

    John,
    The MathMistakes Posterous is AMAZING!! I’ve long focused my teaching efforts on figuring out what students are actually thinking (right & wrong). The posts there are awesome.
    I haven’t peeked yet at O’Shea’s site, but if it’s anything like MathMistakes, it’s a true gem for teachers.
    Thanks for sleuthing and sharing!

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