Monday, August 01, 2011

We Cannot Fail

A couple days ago I gave you a statistic that was likely pulled out of thin air, but it is one I believe in nevertheless.

If you do what the parenting experts say 35 percent of the time, you are the best parent in the world.

I've written frequently about the importance of making mistakes (e.g., here, here, here, here, here). Indeed, the longer I teach, the closer I come to the notion that education is largely a process of making mistakes. And if you should be so unfortunate as to find yourself in a position of being right all the time, of never failing, then I'd say you're living in the tedious realm of mind numbing rote, which is the opposite of learning. Parents who are not "failing" are not learning, which I assert is one of the key attributes of a "good parent." So not only do I stand beside that 35 percent number, I might even say it's a little too high. The same goes for teachers.

Yesterday's post was about a kind of failure. In the comments, Siobhan wrote:

It is a great relief to know that you can still get it wrong. I spend a lot of my time as a teacher beating myself up for not doing it better. Recently, as I have been doing a lot of reading about inspiring things other teachers have done, I have also felt my own confidence ebbing away. Beautifully framed photos and well-told stories of other people's best moments can look so intimidating, and make my own day to day efforts look a bit pathetic. So it is nice to be reminded that, even for a someone as famous as you, there is a continuous process of learning, and relearning and self-criticism and admitting to mistakes. And that not everything is inspirational and well-judged. 

Let me state right here, that I "fail" as a teacher at least 65 percent of the time, if day-to-day success is measured in terms of meeting the pictures in my mind of what I think will and should happen. In fact, I've mentioned before (e.g., here, here, here) that the more vested I am in my own agenda, the more likely it is that I'll find myself frustrated. And that's, of course, because it's not my agenda, but the children's, that must stand at the heart of a play-based curriculum.

No one sets out to fail, of course, and when we succeed it's only natural to want to enthusiastically shout out like a child, "Look at me!" But Siobhan's comment makes me realize that we do ourselves and the children we teach a disservice every time we set out to succeed as well; when we plant a goal in the future and drive the children toward it, even if it's with gentle words and friendly cajoling. We rob them of the process of learning, pushing them instead toward a kind of fait accompli, a thing they will only partially understand or even care about. It's a kind of learning perhaps, but an impoverished one that comes from without rather than within.

Matty used wood, nails, and string to make this addition to our scarecrow.

Last week I'd had an idea about using string and nails. I drove some nails partially into trunks and stumps, then set out several balls of plain, old cotton string and some scissors, the idea being that the kids could create a string house or artwork or whatever by wrapping and connecting those nails with the string. I'd even planned on them wanting to hammer in new nails as their play evolved. Naturally, the first child on the scene, when I described my idea to him, tied one end of the string to a nail, then with the idea of making a "giant house," marched the ball around the plants in our garden until he was snapping off their tops and yanking them up by their roots.

Fortunately, our day was just getting started and the others hadn't seen this foray, so I quickly diverted him in another direction, cut away the destructive string, reset the plants, then threw up my hands when Amanda, the parent-teacher in charge of the workbench, arrived on the scene, telling her, "My idea isn't going to work. You have string, scissors, hammers and nails." She's been working in our classroom for a lot of years now, so she knew what to do. Later, when I returned to check on things, I asked, "How's it going?" She just answered, "Kids and tools."

Some of the kids, without my directing them, wound up doing the kinds
of things I'd originally envisioned.

This was a spider web.

I don't know what this was.

Here's a giant letter "T" . . .

. . . which inspired a friend to make one of his own, which he later
declared to be a hammer. I said, "You made a hammer with a hammer."
And he answered, "I did!"

In a play-based curriculum, the only failures are those that come when adults cling too possessively to their own agendas, either driving children toward their predetermined goal, or pulling out their own hair in frustration when the children, as they always will, seek to make it (whatever it is) their own.

The following day, the string and scissors found their way up into the lilac forts, where the
 construction techniques we had taught ourselves were given wider expression.

The children augmented their creations with masking tape as well.

It's something I need to remind myself of every day, this setting aside of my own agenda. We all should, I think. There is great power in standing before children and saying, I don't know what to do.

When we do that as teachers, we put learning in the children's hands, and in doing that we cannot fail.

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polly said...

First, thank you so much for passing on the wise words of the Norwegian administrators and king. I lived there for 2 years and have no trouble seeing both the steel and the great love in the people I came to respect and adore.

About making mistakes, I wanted to recommend a wonderful article: Hynes-Berry, M., & Itzkowich, R. (2009). The Gift of Error. In A. &. Gibbons (Ed.), Conversations on Early Childhood Teacher Education (pp. 104-112). Auckland, New Zealand: New Zealand Tertiary College. It sounds very obscure, but I am certain that you must know Bonnie and Roger Neugebauer at Childcare Info Exchange and I'm pretty sure this was one of the products from the World Forum held in New Zealand.
Thanks so much.

Amanda Lynn said...

So I saw an amazing idea the other day and think its something you would love! You take a hot glue gun and run crayons though it in place of a glue stick onto canvas (cardboard or wood would probably work well also) it makes bright colorful drippy art! I have yet to try this but will be very shortly but I know your kids use glue guns and thought this would be something they may like to try also! (the picture i saw the glue gun had dripped crayon onto it so you may want to give it a try with an old or very cheap one)

AmyD said...

Great article and so true. I have noticed that when I have a "craft" in mind, and we are following "rules", then I am not as interested and my 4 year old isn't. It is when she is given free range that she comes up with amazing ideas and gets excited about them. That is learning in her eyes and I love it. And then I then when she starts to problem solve and create on her own, I just ask her for direction. I let it be driven by her. We have had some wonderful moments like that. Thanks for sharing.