After waiting several seconds for the kids to guess how he had done the card trick, Professor Francis Su, a friend of ours and the President of the Mathematical Association of American, said, “When you don’t know the answer, when you aren’t sure what to do, do SOMETHING. If you do nothing, you’re never going get it. But if you do the wrong thing, you can learn from it.”
Oh, how I wish I could help my children internalize that idea. Instead, when they encounter a problem they don’t know how to do right away, they freeze, get angry, cry, call for help immediately, and/or yell at me. The belief that you can sit in frustration, try something, have it fail, figure out why it failed, and try again is not one they currently hold.
Even more than the fact that doing SOMETHING can ultimately lead to success, he told them that you often learn something more deeply if you made a few mistakes before you got to the right answer.
They had plenty of chances to practice the idea with Francis because the tricks he taught them weren’t easy. So when they tried them on their own, they didn’t get them right at first. That was because they hadn’t truly understand the pattern the trick was based on. But after analyzing each failed attempt, they better understood what the trick was really all about.If you want to learn how to do the easier of the two tricks he taught them, check out his Math Fun Facts website.
As I was watching them, I thought about the class earlier in the day. Certainly, they were not encouraged to just do SOMETHING. They were given very clear instructions on what and how to cut. But even in this very structured dissection, the principle held. When the teachers asked the kids what they noticed about the suction cups, they noticed that they were serrated and he asked them why? When a student replied that they could be used to defend themselves, the teacher asked them to look at how small the serrations were and if that would make for a very effective defense. If he had simply told them that the serrations helped the squid hold on to its prey while eating, the kids wouldn’t necessarily noticed how tiny the serrations were. It was only by guessing incorrectly, that they spent more time thinking about the size of the serrations.
The willingness to risk failure is foundational to success. Maybe Nike should change their tagline from Just Do It to Just Do SOMETHING.