There is something about math that seems to instill a deep-seated fear of making a mistake. Maybe it is because there is a sense of objectivity to it. Students tend to see answers as being either right or wrong, black or white with no shades of gray. My sense is that this tendency towards perfectionism is magnified with many students who are gifted. Research supports that perfectionism is a common trait in gifted students. I think it is tied to the fixed mindset that so many of them have developed. Things have come easily so they are “smart”. They can’t be “smart” if things don’t come easily and they can’t be “smart” if they make mistakes. Whatever the causal factor, I think perfectionism limits them. The ability to take academic risks can propel their thinking forward in leaps rather than in small steps. I want this for them.
To try to convince students that mistakes can actually be a good thing, I have been telling students the story of the First Penguin Award that Randy Pausch details in his book The Last Lecture. Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. In his virtual reality course, he always gave an award for the most colossal failure because we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. He called the award the First Penguin Award because the first penguin who jumps into the black water below is taking a risk in order to survive.
After telling the story of the First Penguin Award, I implement something similar in my class. My version of the First Penguin Award rewards a student who makes a mistake because allowing us to look at their work, to figure out the mistake, and to discuss how to fix the mistake moves everyone’s thinking forward. The award is simply a piece of candy. Students who find the mistake and help to fix the mistake also get a piece of candy. Giving them a piece of candy for fixing the mistake helps them move beyond “I got a different answer” to actually analyzing someone else’s work.
It takes a little while, but the idea of getting a piece of candy has helped students to see that I really mean it when I say that mistakes are a good thing because that is how we learn.