A Place To Be Wrong


When I was in secondary two, my mathematics teacher asked if my class if anyone wanted to participate in a mathematics competition outside of class. A few people volunteered, but I did not. I suppose at the time I might have been a bit self-conscious about participating in an activity that seemed like it wouldn’t be a popular thing to tell people you do. (Of course, I wouldn’t mind telling someone that I did that right now.)

However, my teacher was surprised that I did not volunteer, and she eventually asked me about it. I told her I just wasn’t that interested (which was true), but she insisted that I sign up. I told her I would think about it, and eventually, I did sign up.

I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be like. Apparently, the competition was just a quiz between others in my grade who signed up. I did not know how well I would do, but I was confident that I could do well since I was one of the best mathematics students in my grade.

The day of the test came, and the rules were explained to us. The test was all multiple choice, and you’d get a certain number of points if you got a question right, and none if you got one wrong. However, there was a catch: to reduce simple guessing as a strategy, you would get some points if you left a question blank instead of choosing an answer (to a total of ten unanswered questions).

With the rules explained, I dug into the test. It was designed such that the first questions were fairly trivial, and the ones further along became more and more difficult. I answered the first questions with little problems, but I slowly began to have trouble getting the answer for the next questions. It was frustrating because I had almost no idea what to do on these questions. I was baffled. Not wanting to take a chance, I did what I would never do on a test and skipped the question.

I remember at the end of the competition thinking, “There’s no way that I could win. I skipped so many questions that I’m sure someone else did better than me.” I then talked to one of my friends and asked how the test went. He told me that it went great.

Confused, I asked, “How many questions did you skip?”

“Maybe two,” he answered.

“Two?” I said in disbelief. “Man, I must have skipped at least five questions.”


Miraculously, I did end up winning, and I continued winning throughout the rest of secondary school. Each time, I would wonder how in the world I won when I skipped so many questions. I was forced to conclude that either everyone else made a lot more mistakes than I or that I skipped more questions than they did and got more points, or some sort of combination of the two.

As I competed later on in secondary school, I started to actually enjoy these quizzes. While usual tests were stressful since I knew I always had to perform perfectly, I knew that I could “drop the ball” a little bit on these quizzes and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. This gave me a lot more satisfaction during the competitions.

What I take away from that environment is that it was fun to challenge oneself, but you didn’t feel like crap if you screwed up or couldn’t figure out what to do. The pressure of regular tests wasn’t there.

This is something that I’ve been trying to figure out how to incorporate in schools. The goal of course is for students to know how to tackle problems they come across in disciplines like mathematics, but often the atmosphere of an exam takes away from the experience. Done right, these challenges should be fun, and encourage the students to try new methods of solving a problem. Experimentation should be key, and in the end it can teach the students an important lesson about the concept they are learning.

I think tests and quizzes are a good thing, but I think it would be even better if we included instances where quizzes were given that don’t necessarily count for marks, yet can still challenge students. Of course, some sort of incentive could be given, but the essence of the idea is to bring back problem solving without necessarily having to worry about grades.

When I was doing that competition, I loved not having to worry about how this will affect my overall grade. I could just focus on doing the task at hand, and I think it helped me do well on those tests and actually win.

Instead of having a class be only about assignments and tests, perhaps some sort of in-class problem solving could help foster more experimentation and creativity in the way students approach mathematics.

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