Takeaways from TLAC 2.0: Culture of Error

In this blog series, we’re digging into Teach Like a Champion 2.0 and discussing what we feel are the biggest takeaways from the book. Collaborating on the series are Petra Claflin (former teacher and instructional leader turned lead writer for YES Prep’s communications & marketing team), Elisa Gibbs (Middle School Math Specialist & math intervention teacher), and Sarah Murphy Traylor (former teacher and instructional coach & now talent recruiter for YES Prep).

Today’s takeaways are from Elisa Gibbs.

Culture of Error

In Teach Like a Champion 2.0, a big emphasis is placed on how to check for understanding and gather reliable data in the classroom. A key piece of this is developing a ‘culture of error’ in your classroom – a culture where mistakes are embraced as part of the learning process. The more comfortable your students (and you) are with taking risks, sharing answers, and making mistakes, the more reliable your checks for understanding will be and, more importantly, the more your students will learn!

Two Strategies to Create a Culture of Error in your Class:

Teach students that mistakes grow your brain.

  • I recently read the following quote by Jo Boaler of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and it has completely changed how I message mistakes to my students.
“Brain scans now tell us that when someone makes a mistake in math and they struggle over something, synapses fire.When someone does not struggle and they get an answer correct nothing happens.”
  • I love sharing this with students and now every time students make a mistake and we are able to correct it as a class I can say “Yes! Your brain is growing!”  Also when students are struggling, I can praise their struggle and remind them that when they are struggling they are literally getting smarter!

Plan multiple opportunities in class where students can share different solutions and learn from mistakes. In order to do this effectively Teach Like a Champion 2.0 discusses three strategies

  • Expect Error. What does this mean? If we expect error, then we are not surprised or disappointed when students make a mistake.  Instead we are excited because it provides us an opportunity to get inside a students’ brains, know what they are really thinking, and then help fix misconceptions.


  • Withhold the Answer. Withholding the answer is a great way to see what students really understand.  To withhold the answer, rather than saying “Great Job, that is correct!”” or “No, sorry that answer is incorrect, does anyone have another answer,” you simply write each answer on the board without commenting on whether the answer is right or wrong. 


  • Manage the Tell. The hardest part about this is keeping your facial expressions from giving away that the answer is correct or incorrect, managing your ‘tell.’  Think of a poker face.  Once you take the answer that is given without comment, ask if anyone else has an answer.

Every time I use these strategies I not only engage my students more in wanting to know the correct answer, but I am also amazed at what misunderstandings students actually have that I would have never have known about if I had just accepted the first answer.

Here’s an example from a recent lesson I taught on integers:

I wrote the following problem on the board:    4 – (-5)

I then asked students to silently think about the answer for 10 seconds.  I called on a Miranda who responded with “The answer is 9.”  In my head I was delighted.  “Yes!” I thought.  “My students can add integers.” But I held back from smiling, tried to contain the excitement in my eyes and simply wrote the answer on the board.  I then asked if anyone else had a different answer to share.  While I hoped no one would, I expected error and asked the question in a tone that encouraged students to share another strategy and did not give away that 9 was correct.  Multiple hands shot up in the air, eagerly excited to share their thinking.  “Oh no," I thought deep down to myself, "this is not what I want to see.”  One student shared -9.  Another student shared -1 and then multiple students agreed with him.  Then the unexpected happened.  Miranda raised her hand and decided to change her answer from 9 to -1.  All in a moment, I went from thinking my students had mastered integer operations to find that we still had a lot of work and practice to do. 

By expecting error, withholding the answer, and managing my tell, I now had a much clearer understanding of where the class stood on integers and had the opportunity to discuss this common mistake with the entire class. Students were engaged and eager to hear why the answer was not -1 and this led to a rich discussion on subtraction of integers.

In a math classroom, or any classroom, creating a culture of error is the first step in helping our students become better problem solvers.  Students who are not afraid to make mistakes learn how to persevere when solving a problem.  These students know that it's okay to try one solution path and when you don’t get the right answer, reassess your method and try a new one.  Cathy Seeley states the importance of creating a culture of error in our classes in her book Smarter than We Think, stating “Creating classrooms where this kind of learning is the norm may help students build into their lives a willingness to struggle, persevere, and learn from their mistakes – important skills for continuing to learn and succeed long after they’re out of school.”

How will you create a culture of error in your classroom?

More Resources for Creating a Culture of Error

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