Encouraging mistakes with paper clips

This year I’ve been trying something new, and I already love the effects. Back in August I had read this wonderful idea from a math teacher whom I don’t know except from her post:

I start a chain of paper clips at the top of the whiteboard. When students catch a mistake I add another paper clip, then when it reaches the floor they receive an award. I use one chain for all classes and it usually reaches the floor 2–3 times a year. It’s highly motivating and a visual reminder each day.

So I shamelessly stole the idea — actually, I credited the otherwise anonymous blogger who calls herself Jade — and promised donuts to all classes when the chain reaches the floor. (I award a paper clip only the first time that a mistake is caught; it has to be a mistake in either math or English, not a judgment call about an explanation or a lesson plan; and it has to be caught by a student, not by me.)

The benefits so far are quite visible:

  • Students pay extra-close attention in order to catch me in a mistake.
  • They get the message that everyone makes mistakes, that doing so doesn’t damage one’s self-esteem, and that the important thing is to take risks and to make quick corrections as needed without embarrassment.
  • Class morale is boosted because students enjoy catching my mistakes.

So far we’re up to twelve paper clips. I haven’t measured, but eyeballing the chain suggests that we’re about one-third of the way down to the floor.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston