I recently had a friend over, and we ended up discussing what I’m growing now in my garden, and what I’m planning to grow. At the end of our discussion, she said, “I can’t garden… I don’t have a green thumb!” It occurred to me that I don’t think that I have a “green thumb” either. I don’t have gardening expertise; but what I do have, that my friend hasn’t yet developed, is the willingness to jump in with both feet, and experiment.
Every year I plant new things in my garden - flowers, veggies, herbs, berries - all kinds of stuff. And every year, some plants thrive, and some decidedly do not. That’s the grand experiment of it all, at least to me - I plant things, and sometimes they grow like wildfire (last year’s green bean experiment), and sometimes they wilt, shrivel, and die, no matter what I do. And that’s okay. Next year, I’ll build on the things that grew like crazy (or cut them back a bit, depending on how wild they went) and then I’ll try more new stuff. That, for me, is the joy of growing things: it’s all one big exciting experiment.
If you follow our blog, you know we talk about kids, math, problem-solving, and critical thinking. So by now you might be wondering why we’re talking about gardening! Well, it recently dawned on me that I’m not a “good” gardener. I’m not incredibly knowledgeable, I have no formal horticulture education, and while I do try to plan things out, I don’t spend tons of time overthinking it. Things grow in my garden not because of what I know, but because of what I am willing to try. And when it all goes terribly wrong, I’m willing to dig it up and try again. I am successful in the garden because of how I approach it, my mindset: I see it as an experiment. I learn as I go, get better by practice, and move on from failure knowing I will ultimately succeed. This is also very much how I approach solving problems in math.
Solving math problems, for me, isn’t vastly different from gardening. And while I proudly consider myself a gardener, I don’t attach any other labels to it; I’m not “good”, or “bad”, I just garden.
Seeing ourselves as “good” or “bad” at anything, especially math, comes with so many misconceptions and pressures. We feel like we have to be right the first time, or that we should be able to show our kids the correct way to do things the first time they try. What if, instead, we decided to look at problem-solving in math like I look at my garden? Some things work, some don’t, and when I look around at what’s growing or not, I can decide what to do next. One experiment leads to another, and I keep succeeding, and failing, and learning, and succeeding again! Why should solving a math problem really be any different?
There is no rule that says we have to get things right the first time when we are learning. There is rarely only one correct way to do something or to solve a problem. Sometimes, even though you have done something successfully in the past, this time it just doesn’t work, and you have to try again. That is totally normal. For a whole host of reasons, there are lots of areas where we are willing to experiment in our lives (you should see some of the things I cook… oops), and then, when we get to solving math problems, or doing school-related work, suddenly we feel like experimentation isn’t allowed… but it is!
If you are freaked out by math, and by solving math problems, it’s pretty likely your kids will learn to be freaked out too. With math problems, many of us feel pressure to do things perfectly from the get-go. It’s a pressure that we unnecessarily place on ourselves, and we teach our kids to place that pressure on themselves too. But when you choose to approach something as an experiment, where if (and when!) things go wrong it’s totally okay, then you teach your kids to do the same - and there isn’t nearly as much pressure when you expect things not to work perfectly the first time. Your mindset, and your approach to solving problems, be they in math or in the garden, is something your kids see, learn from, and imitate!
Wouldn’t it be nice to not be so stressed by solving math problems? Wouldn’t it be nice to help your kids feel the same way? Choose to approach problem-solving as an experiment. It’s okay if not everything works the first time. We’re totally going to try to grow pumpkins again this year. Maybe they’ll grow, maybe they won’t - but that’s the beauty of seeing it as an experiment - either way it’s okay, and we learned something new… let’s try again!
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