Andrea* looks down at the algebra problem she’s working through and notices that she’s assigned a value of five, rather than six, to three twos. As she erases the five and replaces it with a six, she says “Just kidding.” We both smile. Then she continues with the rest of the problem.
This is a simple but brilliant little practice of hers. Math can be so charged, and the prospect of making a mistake in math inspires fear and trepidation throughout the land. If a young person can relate to miscalculation as an opportunity to pretend they’ve made a little joke, they’ve got at least one way to keep perspective.
So many of the kids I work with have learned to tense up and start defending themselves when they can’t remember something or when they mix things up. Their eyes dart up to see how I’ll react, and before I even have a chance to, they start spinning their talking wheels – “Oh, I thought we were supposed to do plus, not times… My teacher said… When we did it in class… This is so confusing…” Or they just give up all together and tell me they can’t do it. Usually over something as small as five, instead of six, for two times three. These kids have received the message that if you don’t get every bit of it right every time, especially the single-digit stuff, then you might as well hang up your math cleats and plan on a route that doesn’t include any numbers. They expect to be judged on their ability to achieve computational perfection.
Andrea figured out, in time, that it’s possible to miscalculate, even often, and still excel as a math student. And that if she keeps her sense of humor about her, she can keep her head in the game.
I’ve started telling the younger kids I know, especially those who get skittish when they mix up six and five (or write a seven open to the right instead of left), about Andrea’s just kiddings. I’ll say something like “One of the teenagers I know, when she makes a little mistake like that, always says ‘Just kidding.’ She’s not saying that to really pretend she meant to do it, she’s saying it because it’s funny to pretend she meant to do it. I think she does it to remind herself that making a little mistake is no big deal and if she makes a little joke about it, the mistake doesn’t distract her from the real thinking she’s trying to do.”
A couple of them have tried it, and with noticeable results. It interrupts the habit of panic and doubt, creates a space for relaxation and ease. And there’s nothing like a little calm to free up the mind for math.
*Not her actual name.