Why it's good to get things wrong


He told me math was the one that worried him, and listed a range of things he felt uneasy about; from long division through algebra. I asked him where he wanted to start, and he said algebra. I don't know why he wanted to start there. But that's okay. Not everything is my business.

So, I set him up with a workbook and some introductory exercises. He found them pretty easy, so we turned the page. The next bunch seemed pretty easy too. Well... it was late and I was tired and a tad grumpy, so I waved my hand at him and the book and said, "Just... keep trying pages and tell me when you get to something hard or you stop getting everything right."

Then I sat down with an account of Fred Walker's 36th Division trying to cross the Rapido River in January 1944.


I'd just gotten in little way toward the river, when another fellow finished a bit on maps and such, and said, "I got five wrong."

Out of?

"Out of fifteen," he said. "That's not too bad, is it? Not too good either, is it?"

Realizing those weren't rhetorical questions - and never having been able to distinguish between "too good" and "too bad" - I decided to stall. I showed him how 10 out of 15 could become 67 out of 100, and how that became 67 per cent.

"Yeah, but is that good or bad?"

Well.... Well, let's look at what you got wrong.

Which we did. Turns out he was missing information on how longitude and latitude worked - which made several questions impossible - and had mistaken a river for a boundary line on another map. So, we talked long. and lat.; and incidentally why the equator is hot, and how hurricanes form, and whether the climate in Russia is much like our own. All good stuff.

After which, I finally had an answer for him.

Getting five wrong isn't bad, I said, because it gave us five chances to locate some information you were missing. It gave us five chances to learn. It would have been better if you had gotten ten wrong, because then we could have learned twice as much. But five wrong isn't bad.

The worst case, I said, pointing over at algebra guy, is when someone gets everything right. If he keeps getting everything right all night, I'm going to start worrying - in fact, I'm worried right now. Getting everything right means no learning, and that means a wasted class. We only have two classes a week, so to go a whole class without learning anything....

To which algebra guy said, "You can stop worrying. This is getting harder. I'm going to need help soon."

Well, good, I said. And went back to 1944.

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