26 May 2009

The Only Stupid Question is…

… the one not asked. Funny little sayings like that kept popping into mind throughout the readings – all three of them. I need time to process them, and really it’s too soon to blog on the content, but there are those few glaring ideas, under rumblings really, that want to hi-jack my line of thought and attention.

Mixed in all the chatter and noise about attributions, performance as a sign of success, etc. I keep wondering – why is there no mention, not one single time, of the value of failure? Why is it that only once, in my entire academic career, did an instructor state as fact that humans can only truly learn something by proving something false. It was a statistics class, mind bending, mental gymnastics that I enjoyed with great fervor, I  relished statistics. I didn’t do well on every test, but I enjoyed stretching my brain to wrap around those concepts. Even so, none caught me as this one did. He extrapolated even further to say that we learn only by making mistakes, that getting something right on a test only showed what we already knew. The big win, according to him, was to get something wrong, and go back and understand why it was wrong.

I LOVED the notion. It got me through college, not once but twice and a half. It got me through receiving two semesters of F’s, partly due to illness, and partly because of my own false sense of pride. I loved, and still love, the idea because it’s a game changer. It’s not just the freedom, but the invitation to make mistakes, to acknowledge them as learning opportunities, and a way to use them to learn more about the world and how our minds work. It’s  liberating in that it changes the goal of academics from doing it right to doing my best.

Every time I share this sentiment with my students, the idea that their job as students is to make mistakes, they respond with intense surprise and a good dose of relief. I make a pact with my students to celebrate the mistakes as well as the successes, and they enjoy the process of discovering where things went (not wrong, but) awry. They in turn help me when I make mistakes, and I make them – sometimes blaringly loud, off the wall mistakes, which I tell them proves I’m human and not some alien bent on world domination.

When we create a space that allows us to have fun with our mistakes, to see them as opportunities, it isn’t just a game changer. It changes the entire conversation about attributions. No longer do we react emotionally on the basis of success and failure, but on other aspects of learning and inquiry. Not only that, it opens the door to exploring our thinking, our reactions, our beliefs about ourselves, our peers, and the way we think others perceive us. It might even allow us to ask of ourselves and each other, “Now why exactly did I do that?” and come up with a plausible answer.


Toward the Positive said...

I agree 100%! We even sing a song in our classroom about how everyone makes mistakes to normalize it for our six and seven year olds. It helps me as a teacher and a person to "own" my mistakes, to take a deep breath and to dig in to figure it out. My dad, who's an engineer, regularly breaks things -- in order to be able to fix them! Travis (my son's) science fair projects all through elementary school involved broken household appliances which he explored and proceeded to fix. So how is it any different with our intellectual challenges -- mistakes help us learn! JG

Kirsten Nelson said...

Thanks for the comment. Did you happen to notice the word of the day is / was flunk? How totally weird or serendipitous!! During one of team building activities, the kids had to fail three times before succeeding in mastering the challenge. With nearly half our group having special needs and some difficulty navigating the physical requirements, I felt the counselor was unneccessarily hard on our group. I'm glad I didn't speak up, b/c she was as demanding of this group as she was of all the others, and they mastered the task. Who was I to think she should have given allowances, even if they were just in consideration of some needs. I almost inadvertently took away a success from some studetns who will always remember that particular win. It was a huge lesson for me!

Toward the Positive said...

Hi - I was just coming on to comment about your word of the day and your quote of the day (also about success being the continuing on in the face of failure ... in good spirits) but you beat me to it! :) JG