Mistakes Grow Your Brain

Psychologist Jason Moser studied the neural mechanisms that operate in people’s brains when they make mistakes (Moser et al., 2011). Moser and his group found something fascinating. When we make a mistake, synapses fire. A synapse is an electrical signal that moves between parts of the brain when learning occurs.

Moser found that when people make a mistake the brain has two potential responses. The first, called an ERN response, is increased electrical activity that is thought to occur when the brain experiences conflict between a correct response and an error. Interestingly, this brain activity occurs whether or not the person making the response knows they have made an error. The second response, called a Pe, is a brain signal thought to reflect conscious attention to mistakes. This happens when there is awareness that an error has been made and conscious attention is paid to the error.

When I have told teachers that mistakes cause your brain to spark and grow, they have said, “Surely this only happens if students correct their mistake and go on to solve the problem correctly.” But this is not the case. In fact, Moser’s study shows us that we don’t even have to be aware we have made a mistake for brain sparks to occur.

When teachers ask me how this can be possible, I tell them that the best thinking we have on this now is that the brain sparks and grows when we make a mistake, even if we are not aware of it, because it is a time of struggle; the brain is challenged and the challenge results in growth.

The recent neurological research on the brain and mistakes is hugely important for math teachers and parents, as it tells us that making a mistake is a very good thing. Mistakes are not only opportunities for learning, as students consider the mistakes, but also times when our brains grow. Understanding the power of mistakes is critical, as children and adults everywhere often feel terrible when they make a mistake in math. They think it means they are not a math person, because they have been brought up in a performance culture (see Boaler, 2014) in which mistakes are not valued—or worse, they are punished.

In a second study Gabriele Steuer and her colleagues looked at the climate of math classrooms to consider the impact of “mistakes friendly” or “mistakes unfriendly” environments on students’ reactions to errors and the amount of effort they would put into classes (Steur et al., 2013). They found that when students perceived their classroom as mistakes friendly – above and beyond other aspects of their classrooms environment – they increased their effort in their work.

 

This article contains excerpts from Jo Boaler’s new book, Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching

 

See the full article here.