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Getting it wrong

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

One of my all-time favourite techniques for motivating my kids is to deliberately get things wrong. Nine times six? Isn’t that… fifty-five? When it works and they correct you, it works on so many levels:

Obviously, they’ve had to work out the basic sum so it’s asked them a question in a subtle way without your kid having to pick up a pencil. But much more than that it gives them autonomy and a chance to be your equal, your superior, which they’ll get a massive kick out of. And even better, it teaches them to question authority. That the teacher is not always right, so they’d better keep their ears open and check what they’re hearing against what they already know. And it shows there’s merit to be gained in questioning and pointing out the problems, even to authority figures – especially to authority figures. That’s an important lesson you don’t often get the chance to drive home.

The downside is that you have to be confident they’ll get it right. Every so often I’ve tried this and they didn’t correct me – the wrong answer was left hanging in the air. Then you’d better correct yourself and quickly. Also, it only works for revision, for facts they already know, of course. You won’t teach them new stuff like this, but there’s always plenty to go back over.

An important sub-point of this is when you’re practising a skill. For me that came up most often on the piano, they would get frustrated and insist that the piece was impossible, so I’d sit down. I’m no piano player, but I can tap out a melody, so after a few attempts I’d be able to show them what to do. At this point they are still frustrated, and now angry at me because of course daddy can do it, they’re just a kid! It’s not fair! And then I’d play the final notes incorrectly.

That completely changes the dynamic. Daddy isn’t perfect. He can be beaten. Suddenly they’re itching to get back to the keyboard to show me how to do it properly. It’s immensely annoying to see someone doing something poorly when you know you could do it better yourself, and that’s exactly what they’re feeling, as well as confidence in their abilities. It’s a competition in a safe environment. I’d stand up from the piano to let them have a go, and they never catch a glimpse of my smug smile.

I used the example of the piano, but it works for any skill. After showing them how to ride a bike, crash into the bushes. Hit a tennis ball over the fencing. Spill the cake mixture. Make sure they’ve seen the important bit first! But then you can have some real fun with it, and your kids will love correcting you.

This is yet another advantage of home-schooling. If you’re a teacher with thirty kids in front of you then I’d recommend keeping things simple, demonstrating correctly and maintaining the class’s respect unless you’re very sure of your relationship with them. And don’t deliberately get questions wrong unless you know all thirty will get the joke. “But the teacher said that nine times six was fifty-five. He did!” It’s never going to work. But with just your kids in front of you, go for it.

This book is aimed at five to eleven-year-olds and that trick will probably work on them. I can’t advise how long it might work for, it’ll depend on your kids, clearly. Personally, I plan to milk it for as long as possible.

See also

Maths, yay!

No, they're not 'good at maths'

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