Whiteboarding with Mistakes

Today was my first day of whiteboarding with one of my Honors Physics classes. My plan was to use The Mistake Game from the very beginning this year. I suspected it would help set the tone of normalizing mistakes and make students more comfortable.

Brief interlude about the general structure of whiteboarding in my class.

Everyone does all of the problems in their own packets first (often during class, consulting with others at their tables).

Each table gets assigned one problem.

Finished whiteboards all lined up and ready to go. Once all of the boards are up, we're ready to start presenting.

They write up their whiteboard, then place it on the ledge of our front big board, backwards. (This method has worked best for me. That way they aren’t just copying things down from other boards but are focused on only the one at hand. But also, they aren’t busy writing on their own board and it is clear when everyone is ready to get started.)

One group at a time goes up and presents, turning their board around to dramatically reveal their work.

The group presents, possibly prompting questions or comments from their classmates.

Then if there is a lull, I move them forward with my standard, “Agree or disagree? [pause] If you disagree, ask a question. [questions are asked] [repeat as necessary] Comments? Questions? Compliments? [pause] Anyone not ready to move on? [pause] Okay, thanks, guys! Next group!”

And so on.

Learning to do this process well takes a lot of time. It can be very awkward at first. Talking to each other instead of looking to me and getting a nod makes some students feel very uncomfortable (even though I tell them that I will let them go up with a wrong answer, but I will never let them sit down with a wrong answer).

The Mistake Game made this the best first day of whiteboarding EVER.

Here is a whiteboard from today. We haven't gotten to this one yet but will start with it tomorrow. It still has a nice juicy mistake embedded in it (and a good one, too!).

Today, we did our first problem whiteboarding (we whiteboarded our results from our experiment on Tuesday, but labs involve a different mode than this).

I told them that each group would do one problem from the worksheets they had already completed in and outside of class (I’d tell them which problem to do). I told them to make at least one intentional mistake in their solution as well as as many unintentional mistakes as they’d like. Their mistake should be something that they either did while they were first solving the problem, or that they could imagine someone else making. I told them that when they presented, they had to talk through their solution (not just point at the board and say… “There it is…”) including their mistake (which they should say as though it is what they really think). They don’t have to make a show about defending the mistake endlessly, but should at least present it seriously and not give it away. Finally, when they notice the presenting group’s mistake, they need to ask questions to get uncover the mistake (that is, you can’t say, “That’s wrong” or “It should be ______”).

Here’s my post-game analysis of how it went and some theories as to why it went that way.

Since they need to “sell” their mistakes, it feels much more natural for them to talk us through their solution (rather than turn the board around and point, which has been a frequent first response in the past). Each group did a great job of talking us through the work.

They are trying to pull one over on their classmates, so it is natural for them to talk to their peers instead of looking straight at me while they present. That really helps to take the teacher out of the commanding role and is a habit that is usually slow going to develop when they are presenting “correct” answers in my old mode of whiteboarding.

At the same time, students in the “audience” naturally ask their questions of the presented rather than turning to me as the authority. Their questions are meant to move the class toward a better solution and fix mistakes. That is a shift from many old questions that were more focused on what an individual had written on his/her paper (or that were concerned only with their own correctness). I’ve never had students so readily jump into conversations that did not involve me as they did today. Even after weeks of practice. Amazing.

We dug into tough practice immediately.

My students found that it was a bit tough to figure out what mistakes to make when they were creating their boards. I think it was partly because CVPM (Constant Velocity Particle Model) is not really that difficult for them and partly because these are Honors Physics kids on the third day of class (that is, many were still trying as hard as they could to be perfect).

The meatier practice, though, came in the questioning. Asking questions that expose an error and provide a path to the correct solution is not an easy or obvious skill. The kids quickly discovered how challenging that actually was. They made statements, then started over and tried to ask questions, then started over again and tried to ask better questions. They were deep practicing thinking about physics and talking about physics, and they were growing myelin like crazy. I could see them getting better at it even over the course of the 25 minutes or so that we did it (and I hope that they could see that progress for themselves, too).

Don’t worry, you’ll get better at making mistakes.

In the end, how great is it for a teacher to console a student over the fact that, though they aren’t great at making subtle, thoughtful mistakes yet, they are going to get better at that soon?

And the normalizing mistakes has already started paying off. One group presented great solutions to a tricky position graph question. They didn’t fall into any of the traps. Then I asked them to walk the motion. They walked it as though it were a picture (each walking different diagonal paths, rather than both walking in the same direction at different speeds). It’s a very common stumbling block for beginning physics students. And even though they made the earnest mistake in a very public way (a situation that could have been uncomfortable in a perfection-seeking class), they were greeted with kind, eager classmates asking them questions and guiding them to the right idea about how to walk the motion. They were quickly back on track and better off for making the mistake.

My other three sections get to dive into this tomorrow. I couldn’t be more excited!

33 thoughts on “Whiteboarding with Mistakes

  1. You know what’s great is that I just did some groupwork problem stuff on my first day of Algebra 2 (and I was doing a “participation quiz” to let ’em see I care about how they work together: http://samjshah.com/2011/07/12/participation-quizzes/). But on the second day when I had groups present, it fell a bit flat. Partly I thought it was because we were all new and didn’t really know each other. And partly it was because I haven’t yet taught them what a good presentation vs. a bad presentation is. (I didn’t give them any guidance… and they weren’t that good… my bad!) And partly, it’s because they don’t have any REAL reason to engage with the other student’s presentations. So this post is perfect timing, and is giving me some great ideas. Thanks for always being such an inspiration, at just the right time.


    1. Well, since I routinely steal ideas for you, I feel silly about you making such a comment. But thanks! 🙂 I am starting a draft about how the Mistake Game is changing (read: improving) as we near the end of the second week of classes and they are getting used to this whole “whiteboarding” business.

  2. This is such a great way to get the students to develop good WB session questioning skills. Exactly what I need to do to get more value out of our WB time. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    1. It’s so neat to watch their questioning skills develop. And the people presenting have started to become critical of the questions being asked of them, too. So the “audience” is being picky about the board, and the presenters are being picky about the audience’s questions. It’s so great. 🙂

  3. Adore the idea. I think I will pair this with what we did at the start of our Modeling workshop. On day one we played a game where you had to tell 2 truths and 1 lie about yourself to your group. They had to decide which statement was the lie. Then progress into the mistake game. At least we’ll teach them how to develop a good poker face!

    1. Neat idea. 🙂 And I’m surprised by what good “liars” some of my students are. Not sure how to feel about that. Some can’t present with a straight face, but some are really very good at it.

  4. I absolutely love this idea. I struggled last year getting students involved in the homework review and this year purchased large white boards. I use a similar process – I give each of my five groups 2 problems to review and present to the class. Even this early in the year students are excited about the process. Now I just need to add the incorporation of intentional errors. What an excellent way to get students to think critically about their work and find common mistakes!

    1. It’s great to hear kids saying things like, “Okay, now that we know what to do, how can we mess this up?” It just instantly lowers the possible stress level, and sneakily is getting them to do some really difficult and valuable metacognition work.

  5. Woah… this is such an elegant way to *show* so many of the things I care about when it comes to discussion norms, which I tend to just babble about again and again.


  6. […] Whiteboarding with Mistakes by Kelly O’Shea — Even though Kelly O’Shea is a high school physics teacher, there are some great connections here to what  you do in your classrooms. In this blog post, O’Shea writes about using mini-whiteboards in class and his process which includes asking kids to make purposeful mistakes in solving problems so other students can catch the error and talk through the reason(s). I love the tagline on O’Shea’s blog which is a quote by Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” […]

  7. Hi Kelly, I am a new colleague of Frank Noschese at John Jay High School. He pointed me to your blog and I’ve been following it. Today I tried the “Mistake Game” and it was a complete success! My students loved it, and I loved it. I wish my supervisor had walked in during it. I had students write a scenario (we’re on Balanced Force PM) and from the scenario draw a system schema and a free body diagram. They had to put the mistake somewhere in the schema or the FBD. The students put the white boards around the room and do a “gallery walk” to find the errors on everyone else’s board (they wrote their answers down as an exit ticket). It was one of the best classes I have had yet this year. Will definitely be taking advantage of this in the future. Thank you for the suggestion!

  8. […] 3. Another thing I don’t do as often as I would like is asking people to record all the strategies that they think work, and then strategies that look plausible but don’t work.  Recording *all* of them on the board, asking people not to say which ones are which, helps break down the assumption that all things written on boards are automatically true.  This is somewhat inspired by Kelly O’Shea’s “Mistake Game“. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s