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Embracing failure: How to promote risk-taking in maths

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Embracing failure: How to promote risk-taking in maths

iMaths 25/10/16


Note: iMaths is in its final year and will be discontinued at the end of 2024. If you’re looking for a primary maths resource written for the Australian Curriculum Version 9.0, explore Maths Trek.

Thomas Edison once said:

‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10 000 ways that won’t work.’

Edison’s attitude is shared by countless entrepreneurs, leaders and inventors, from Richard Branson to Mark Zuckerberg. They believe in taking risks and embracing failure.

Can you think of any students in your class who share this attitude? They’re the kids who voice their ideas, ask the ‘silly’ questions and bravely tackle a new experience even when they don’t know the outcome. When they fail, they dust themselves off and try again.

This positive attitude to academic risk-taking has a number of important benefits across all areas of learning, including maths. It can help students to:

  • foster a deeper understanding of concepts
  • make new discoveries
  • build confidence in their own knowledge
  • apply prior knowledge to new situations
  • strengthen their perseverance and love of learning.

But for every student who embraces failure, there are many more who will go to extreme lengths to avoid it. Failure can make them feel humiliated, stupid or even worthless. Instead of taking risks, they keep quiet, doggedly stick to what they already know and avoid making choices unless they know the outcome.

So how can you help your maths students break out of their comfort zone?

Encourage risk-taking with iMaths Investigations

iMaths lends itself to risk-taking. The Investigations stimulate critical thinking, creativity and curiosity. They also address the proficiency strands: Understanding, Fluency, Problem Solving and Reasoning.

Let’s explore how to encourage risk-taking with iMaths.

Foster a risk-friendly classroom

Before starting an Investigation, make sure your students know it’s okay to make mistakes. Encourage them to ask ‘silly’ questions and share ‘crazy’ ideas. Build a sense of trust by telling students to support one another as they take risks. For example, ask the class to applaud after a student presents the results of their Investigation.

You might even like to model how to fail! Perform a task that you know how to do, such as singing, juggling or a yoga pose – but then push yourself until you fail. For example, let’s say you know how to juggle. Demonstrate your juggling skills and then increase your speed to the point where you drop the balls. Explain that you’re happy to fail because that’s how you learn and improve.

Ask questions before an Investigation

In iMaths, we always ask questions after an Investigation. However, questions before an Investigation can spark curiosity. For example, in the Year 4 Investigation Marble Mash students are asked to design a container that holds the most marbles. Before this Investigation, you might ask: ‘What are some 3D objects of different shapes and sizes? Which shape has the greatest volume? How could you test this?’

Don’t be afraid to throw in some absurd questions. For example, you might ask: ‘What if we water plants with olive oil instead of water?’ This fosters a sense of fun and inventiveness, but also encourages students to make informed risk-taking decisions.

Organise balanced, supportive groups

When organising groups for Investigations, consider the abilities and attitudes of the students. Pair a risk-taker with more conservative students. The risk-taker will inspire courageous choices, while the conservative students will add a balanced argument. This helps the group to make brave – but informed – decisions.

It’s also important that the students support and trust each other. Consider starting a session with a fun team-building exercise to create a supportive team environment.

Make risk-taking a task

When you explicitly challenge students to take a risk, it’s more likely that they will leap into the unknown. Why not modify an Investigation to include your own risk-taking challenge?

For example, let’s explore how you might modify the Year 2 Investigation Marble Ramp to promote risk-taking. In this Investigation students build a ramp. Their goal is to roll a marble along the ramp for at least two metres. However, you can modify this task and ask students to explore unknown outcomes by changing some variables. For example:

  • What happens if you use a heavier marble?
  • What happens if you make your ramp steeper?
  • What happens if you add lots of twists and turns to your ramp?

The outcomes might not result in ‘success’ – that’s not the point. The point is to encourage students to make choices without knowing the outcome.

Risk-taking has countless benefits in the short-term, but it might also have lifelong benefits. In our ever-changing world, it’s important our young people tackle the unknown with bravery, curiosity and perseverance. In the words of Mark Zuckerberg:

‘The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.’

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