This is such a good question. I don’t have a great answer, and I’d like to try articulating why that is.

When people get in touch with me about this site, it’s often to talk about using the mistakes from this site in the classroom. As far as I can tell (and I can’t!), that’s how people who use this site tend to use the site. They take mistakes and ask their kids to analyze them. Why did this student make this mistake? Or, did this student make a mistake? What advice would you give them? What could they do better next time? And so on.

What’s the theory here? Why would this help learning?

Sometimes, when I’m talking to people, it sounds like people think that being aware of possible errors will safeguard students from future errors. Let’s call this type of instruction Teaching to Avoid Temptation. To teach this way is to ask students to reflect on errors, so that next time they won’t make them again. Will they be tempted to make those same mistakes? Maybe they will, but they’ll remember this conversation or their feedback on this last quiz and then they’ll know now to combine unlike terms or whatever.

As someone who spends all day working with children, I am skeptical that we can teach them to avoid temptations.

What we can do, though, is teach them some math that will help them think differently or more fluently about certain problems. Maybe analyzing and discussing math mistakes can do that?

I’m sure that some pieces of math mistakes can be great for teaching some new ways of thinking. But not all mistakes are fruitful for learning some math. What math could a kid learn from discussing how someone multiplied the base and power?

(Maybe I’m just not being imaginative enough?)

Anyway, as I was thinking about this I came up with two situations where a mistake can really liven up a whole-group conversation.

Situation 1: When there’s a wrong way of thinking that a lot of kids have, but you want an emotionally neutral setting to dispute it. So you invent a mistake (or you pull a mistake from this site) and discuss the wrongness of that mistake instead of one from your classroom.

Situation 2: When you want to isolate a strategy from the answer. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish a strategy from a correct procedure. Drawing your students’ attention to a mistake that nonetheless tries something worthwhile might really help them focus on that worthwhile thing, maybe more than a correct attempt would.

The conversational work that kids will do would differ in those two situations. For Situation 1, kids are tasked with formulating justifications and reasons. (Is this right? If it’s wrong, why is this wrong? What would be right? Why would it be right?) For Situation 2, the work is articulating what was good about the solution attempt. That work might also involve using and practicing that helpful strategy. An easy move is to ask students to use that strategy to correctly complete the problem. Another is to ask students to use that strategy on a related problem, or a related set of problems.

That’s all I could come up with. You?