Is it ever OK to let children fail?

When I was a child, if I ever got frustrated at doing something wrong my dad would tell me not to worry because I’d learned twice as much as if I done it right: I’d learned how not to do it as well as how to do it! He was right. Sometimes doing something wrong first makes the right way to do it far more memorable.

I once watched a Year 6 pupil plot a graph of the temperature during one day where he had put the time up the y axis and the temperature along the x axis. I saw the confusion on his face when the graph line took an unexpected twist, but I said nothing and let him finish.

Afterwards I asked him what he had done wrong. He wasn’t sure, so I asked him instead what he was sure he had done right. We reinforced the fact that he had chosen a sensible scale to draw the graph, that he had remembered to label the axes, that he had given the graph a title, that he had correctly read the information from the table, and that he had correctly transferred this information to the graph.

I then asked him if he had done all these things correctly, what made him so sure that something was wrong. He twisted the page round and said “Because I expected the line to be this shape.” I asked him what he could change to make the graph the shape he expected it to be, and the penny dropped that he needed to put time on the x axis. I then made him redo the whole graph.

I could have stopped him at several points during the session – when he first explained how he was going to draw the graph, when he labelled the axes, when he first realised that the point he had just plotted wasn’t where he expected it to be – and prevented him from going wrong, but is being told you are about to make a mistake as memorable as seeing the result of something you have done wrong and having to work out how to do it right? I don’t think so. If I had stopped him, I think it is possible he would have made the same mistake again in the future.

At no point was he allowed to feel silly for making a mistake – just the opposite, I emphasised everything he had done right. As he was redrawing his graph he said, “Sally-Jayne, I’m never going to make this mistake again!”  And do you know what? I don’t think he ever will.

Teaching Telling the Time – Putting the two hands together

So, you’ve introduced the hour hand and then introduced the minute hand. What next?

Now it’s time to put the two hands together. I have blue for my hour hand, and red for my minute hand, and around the clock I have the numbers 1 to 12 in blue, and the words five to thirty, quarter and half in red to help the children remember which hand goes with which whole number.  This is more for their confidence than a necessity, because we have made sure they are confident with hours and minutes first.

We move both hands round the clock at the same time so that the children can see that in the time it took the hour hand to move from 1 to 2, the minute hand went all the way round the clock.

We looked at the fact that when the hour hand is pointing exactly at a number (o’clock) the minute hand is always pointing at o’clock. When the hour hand is pointing halfway between two numbers (half past), the minute hand is always pointing a half past.

When the hour hand is between o’clock and quarter past, so is the minute hand – and now they know how to count the minutes to find out exactly what time between o’clock and quarter past it is.  The children now begin to realise that they can tell the time to the nearest five minutes. They can look at the hour hand first to work out the time more or less, and then the minute hand to add in the detail.

I’ve taught a few year 6 children to tell the time in this way. They had been mystified by the hands, the fact that the numbers had two values and by the ‘to’ and the ‘past’. More conventional ways of learning to tell the time had not worked for them, and they were feeling stupid that they couldn’t grasp something that their classmates understood.

By splitting the hands up, it took away a lot of their confusion. Suddenly it all made sense to them. Their confidence grew, which then had an impact on their feelings about maths lessons in general. Their teachers noted that they were participating more in class, and this helped them to improve in other areas of maths. And that’s why I really love my job.

For maths and English tutoring in the north Birmingham, Sandwell and Walsall areas, visit For links to other interesting education related articles, come and Like my Facebook page.

Related posts: Teaching Number Bonds, A Multisensory Approach to Reading

Teaching Telling the Time – Introducing the Minute Hand

Now that the children are happy with the hour hand, and confident that they can tell the time more or less with just this hand, it’s time to introduce the minute hand. We compare the size to the hour hand and note that it is longer.

I explain that this one counts the minutes round the clock, and make sure they are happy that there are 60 minutes in an hour and 30 minutes in half an hour.

I show them a clock face that has the positions of the numbers marked on, but not the numbers themselves. We start at the top, and count to the bottom in fives, stopping at each mark as we go, to establish that 30 minutes is half way round. We repeat, this time writing o’clock at the top, and the numbers five to thirty in words on the clock. We put ‘fifteen’ and ‘thirty’ in brackets and write ‘quarter’ and ‘half’ underneath them.

We then return to the top of the clock and count in fives anti-clockwise, writing on the numbers as we go round. Again we put fifteen in brackets and write quarter underneath. We then look briefly at the symmetry of the clock face, with the fives opposite each other, tens opposite each other etc.

Finally we move the minute hand all the way round the clock, noting that to start with it is going past the o’clock, but that when it passes the bottom it starts getting closer to the o’clock. We compare this to the hour hand going past one hour and getting closer to the next one.

We practise showing different minutes on the clock: ten past and ten to, twenty past and twenty to, and so on.  I always keep the times in pairs, and always ask for the ‘past’ first to give children time to sort out in their own minds which side is ‘past’ and which is ‘to’. If necessary I will draw a line between o’clock and half past and label each side of the clock with past and to for a visual clue.

When the children are confident with the minute hand, move on to putting both hands together.

For maths and English tutoring in the north Birmingham, Sandwell and Walsall areas, visit For links to other interesting education related articles, come and Like my Facebook page.

Related posts: Teaching the Times Tables, Teaching Number Bonds