According to an increasing number of experts, ensuring that children avoid failure is doing more harm than good. Accommodating and facilitating a child’s avoidance of anxiety actually increases the problem, because they will never have a chance to fail and in turn, learn to persist.
Antonia Chaney, primary numeracy coordinator at Mountain District Christian School in Monbulk, Victoria explains how they let students make mistakes to develop their love of learning.
Teaching children to become resilient learners is an important part of their development, especially in numeracy. The ability to accept mistakes, handle setbacks, adjust appropriately, and keep striving to learn will serve them throughout the rest of their lives.
I began teaching early childhood education before moving to the primary team a few years ago. As primary numeracy coordinator my role is sourcing and guiding teachers with their curriculum to ensure we have a cohesive united front in the way we teach numeracy. We don’t use the term maths or mathematics and believe that numeracy involves being able to apply an in-depth understanding of mathematical skills to solving problems.
Part of this approach to developing our students’ love of numeracy involves making a mistake, recognising it as a positive learning experience and trying again; they will become stronger and better at tackling future challenges. Certainly, in numeracy, we see it helping them to learn coping skills and finding solutions to problems.
I liken the concept to a child falling off their bike. The balance that teachers have to achieve is between developing this resilience while still ensuring they love learning.
One example of achieving this balance was with a student in my class during the pandemic. We were setting up video conference lessons and sending work home for the children to carry out on the online resource we use, at home. One student wasn’t logging in for these lessons and struggled to communicate. I spoke to his parents who explained that their son felt that the questions were too hard.
When I checked his progress, he was doing really well, but his perception was that if he got one question wrong, he was failing. The very day he sent me a message to say that he’d received a certificate from our numeracy resource provider; he was top of the world and had learned a vital lesson in accepting failure as a necessary part of learning. I sent him a message to say that I was really pleased that he’d persisted even though he found it difficult; he has never loved numeracy more!
Being in control
As this student example demonstrates, the important part of developing a child’s resilience is about them feeling they are in control of their learning. If they feel that they have no control over their failure they will lose their drive to achieve. But nothing can inspire children more than achieving that eureka or ‘aha!’ moment when a puzzling maths problem is finally solved.
Getting the level right
Obviously, a key part of this, ‘control’ involves ensuring that each student is given the numeracy challenges that are correctly aligned to their level of development. There are many digital resources on the market, but we use Mangahigh, because it automatically and consistently assesses each student’s level of understanding to match the questions with the child.
It’s important to provide a ‘scaffolding’ approach to track their progress and set the questions just slightly harder than their level so they can work out the answer with just one or two attempts before they solve the problem. As with the bike analogy, it’s about experiencing mistakes and getting back on their bike. For our teachers this means they can leave the children to work their way through the fun challenges at their own pace, autonomously.
Moving on from mistakes quickly
Context is essential to resilience. If a child feels like a moment of struggle is going to last forever, it can be hard to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. It is therefore important that the mistakes that they make aren’t major and that this is quickly replaced with another fun question or challenge. Humour can be one of your most important allies when striving to become more resilient, so fun images and representations of encouragement go a long way.
Learning from such setbacks empowers kids to learn and think differently. It can help them build self-awareness and self-advocacy skills. It can also help them develop new strategies and tools for solving problems. And it can certainly boost their motivation and self-esteem.
At Mountain District Christian School our aim is that they should have up to three attempts to get a question right; they won’t learn if they don’t have the chance to do things that are difficult.
Don’t jump in to fix things
As all teachers know when a student is struggling it’s not about giving them the answer. Our resource provides tips and guidance along with the space to find the right solution themselves. Giving students a visual representation of the problem is something that the children love and is a very effective way of helping them to find the right answer.
One of the best uses for online numeracy resources is for learning the times-tables. As one of those necessary and frustrating evils, rote learning has always been considered to be the only way to learn. Parents can also be a problem because their view is that they struggled to learn them and therefore they aren’t worried if their child faces the same problem. For us, rote learning just wasn’t achieving the results we wanted and added to this, was the issue that there were no strategies to recall the information. We therefore set about building such a strategy in partnership with our parents.
Once a child has a strategy in mind, they can always apply this to whatever question is set. Once again online numeracy resources can be ideal in using real life problem-solving approaches to teaching the times-tables; it certainly appears to be working for us.
Building children’s resilience in numeracy is a vital part of the learning and something that we are focusing on at Mountain District Christian School. While we don’t yet have measurable data to show any improvement it is clear to all the staff that our work is helping the students to develop a love of learning.