We Need To Be Able To Fail





"If I do it like this, will it work out?"
Try it. Nothing very bad can happen.
"I hate it when you say that."

Why? Why hate it? When did getting it wrong, thinking some more, and then getting it right become such a problem? Whence the fear and fretting? Silly question, I suppose. I might just as well ask whence the bullying and criticism?



One of the things I struggle with is this: When to help, when not to help, when not helping is helpful, and how to cope with other would-be helpers.

My starting assumption is that learning takes time and, often, a certain amount of fumbling. On professional development days, we call this "action research" or "reflective practice." If I'm going to facilitate or support learning, I need to provide a safe space for people to fumble-learn.

For example, a learner is reading about health, and reaches for a dictionary. Only, unaware, she picks up a thesaurus. I'm watching this, you understand. I'm thinking whatever medical word has her stumped, its probably not in the thesaurus. And I wonder, should I say something?

Yes, so she doesn't get frustrated.
No, so she'll become aware of her mistake privately and in her own time.
Yes, because that's my job - to teach people.
No, because my job is to nurture life-long learners, life-long problem-solvers - here's a problem she is equipped to solve herself.
Are you mad? There's no reason to punish her because you've got some crackpot theory!

If I correct her before she asks, I'll be criticizing, and that always does damage.
That's your preception - she might see it differently.
Shut up.
You shut up.
Shut. Up.
In the end, I say nothing, compelled by the feeling that it isn't my business. Until she asks a question - asks for information or assistance - my job is to butt out.

So I do. In a few minutes, she trades the thesaurus for a dictionary, and finds her word. I don't know if she yet knows the difference between a thesaurus and a dictionary, so I'll stick that in the back of my mind as something to clarify down the road.

Later, I say to someone, "You'll probably want to use graph paper with those questions. Do you still have some?"

He says yes, and pulls some sheets out of his book. He lays them down the "wrong way" (this is single-sided graph paper), and picks up a pencil and a ruler.

Now I'm wondering again. Do I say something? Does he realize? The gridwork shows through, faintly. Is he being misled?

I hold my tongue while he looks carefully at the math text, arranges the ruler, re-checks the math text... and then pauses. Flips the paper over, and carries on.

Mind your own business, Wendell, I remind myself again.

In truth, it's not too hard to leave people the space to fumble-learn. I only have to recall how annoyed I become when someone interrupts my learning with well-meant advice.

All I hear is criticism: "You're Doing that Wrong."

Besides, for me, learning has become a tremendous source of fun and pride. I enjoy figuring things out. Lots of us do. I think that's why we often don't read the instructions - we don't like being told. I sure don't.

There's also a schoolish behaviour too much interference brings. I'm thinking about the situation where people, unsure of themselves (or made to feel unsure of themselves), suggest an answer and then search my face for approval or disapproval. Though I've learned to be poker-faced, the very fact they're looking to me is troubling.

So, okay. I'm pretty motivated to create the kind of learning space that allows mistakes, reflection, discovery. The problem arises when other learners hasten to step in.

"You're doing that wrong."

We all know the value of peer mentoring, etc. But still....

What to do, what to do?

I mostly wave my arms and shush people, which is completely wrong. And inconsistent. And disconnecting. And perplexing for everyone but me.

It's just really hard to explain that there's a time to help and a time to leave people alone. No, sorry. That's wrong. What's hard is explaining the difference - especially when I'm not always sure myself.

More... and I guess this is the place I've been heading for: we, as a society and especially in the context of a "teaching-telling" institution, don't seem to allow each other, or ourselves, a fair chance to fail, to be surprised, to fumble-learn.

And there can be no more serious failure than that.


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