Emma Grace: “Mom, I’m gonna mess up. There’s a lot to remember in middle school that I didn’t have to remember in elementary. I’m gonna get it wrong.”
Me: “That’s ok. That’s what first days are for.”
Emma Grace: “Are you kidding? The first day of school is about getting it wrong?”
Me: “Uh, yeah . . . [trying to recover] … Actually it is. Think about it” [good strategy when I’m not ready to explain…]”
Emma Grace: “Ok. Whatever. [Under her breath]: Get it wrong? Yeah, right.”
I’ll admit, I was in a bit of disbelief myself, after hearing myself speak those words. My daughter was distressed over getting it right on the first day of school and all I could come up with was that? The first day is about messing up? About getting it wrong? Hardly seemed like pearls of wisdom.
But . . . let’s think about it.
What if the first day was about messing up? What if, we, as teachers, saw our role on the first day as providing a space where error was allowed, acknowledged without judgment, and perhaps even celebrated? What if first days were about getting it wrong?
A little reflective food for thought: What does it mean that many of us spend the first day telling students about all the rules and consequences of breaking the rules: the infamous “syllabus talk?” What does it say to students on the first day to give a quiz on the syllabus to be sure they know the rules? There’s no judgment here—truly: I’ve certainly been there and done that before. You have to set the tone early. You have lay down the law. You have to know the rules of the game in order to play and win, right?
But… Should education be a game? What if we saw education—and what we do everyday in the classroom—as practice? Or training? Like training for a sport or practicing a musical instrument? We mess up a lot during practice, right? There is room for error. And room for learning. If we walked in with that perspective, how would we change what we do or how we talk with students? Furthermore, how might we do the first day differently?
I recently had the fortune to witness a softball coach working with two young children during a training session. The children were probably somewhere between 5 and 7 years old and it was clear this was a “first day” for them. The coach was lobbing balls to them, one at a time, and asking them to swing and try to hit the ball. One after one the balls came their way and swing after swing they tried to hit them. The entire hour was filled will this repetitive ball lobbing and swinging. My guess is the kids hit about one out of ten of the balls that came their way. But what struck me was not what the kids were doing, but what the coach was doing and saying:
“Good swing, Alex.”
“Beautiful try, Andi.”
“Keep both hands on the bat, Alex. Try again.”
“Andi, back up a bit. Here it comes.”
“Watch and swing, Alex. Nice.”
“Watch and swing, Andi.”
“You’re doing great Andi.”
“Eyes forward, Alex.”
“Hey—that was awesome, Alex!”
“Good swing, Andi. Did you feel that one?”
“Here we go, let’s try that again a little harder… Watch and swing, Alex.”
“Watch and swing, Andi.”
He used their names in almost every interaction. He did not scold error. He gently nudged. He repeated his instructions. He praised the process. Every once in a while one of the kids would connect with a ball. It usually wouldn’t go very far and sometimes it just fell directly to the ground, having been slightly nipped by the edge of the bat. But when they did make any sort of connection, regardless of how far it went, he was all over it:
“Amazing Alex! See you can be a softball player!”
“That still counts, Andi. I don’t care how far it goes. Great work!”
“Oh, beautiful Andi. Awesome.”
“Wow… that was magic, how did you do that?”
The kids did not excel by any standard softball criteria. I would venture to say, though, that after the hour of repetitive practice—a practice where errors were plentiful and coaching was personalized, scaffolded, and confirming—they learned. They learned, without succeeding according to the standardized criteria of the game they were playing . A lesson here, perhaps?
I worry sometimes that we equate learning with succeeding: an A on the test, winning the game, getting the right answer, giving a flawless performance. Success feels good, no doubt. But learning is not always about success. I know, we all have metrics and we have to ensure quality outcomes. I don’t want a doctor who consistently makes errors on an appendectomy operating on me. I get it. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the process—the ways in which we communicate about and frame error and mistake and success and failure our classrooms. I think learning is as much about failing, answering incorrectly, missing the ball, and tripping up on a note as it is about hitting the ball out of the park. If we believed this, how would that change what we do?
We know from writing- and speaking-to-learn literature that providing low stakes opportunities to write and speak—opportunities that allow for error—can be significant in overall competency development. We can drop these kinds of activities in our classrooms often. Yet I wonder how effective they would be if we, as teachers, don’t truly believe in the importance of error in learning? So, aside from what we do in terms of class activities, I’d like to consider, and ask you to consider, what it means to walk through teaching and learning processes with a mindset that authentically embraces error as a friend to learning. How would this change the way you look at the classrooms in your life? The way you interact in a teaching and learning role? The way you reflect on your own actions?
I was putting Emma Grace to bed last week and she said to me: “Mom, you’re actually a good rock climber [she’s been teaching me to indoor rock climb, she’s unbelievably talented, I am trying ;-)]… your problem is that you’re afraid to fall. It’s like you don’t believe there’s actually a mat there. You just need the confidence to know if you miss, there will be a mat. The mat is there but you are climbing afraid; like its not.”
She’s right. I am afraid to fall. Always have been. She’s right, at times I don’t trust there is a mat there. And I actually think life provides us with many places where we choose not to believe in or trust in the available mats. I hate to think of education as one of those places. Now, I don’t think providing a mat is about spoon feeding or rescuing or enabling. I can provide a mat while still maintaining high expectations and pursuing rigor. Furthermore, I don’t necessarily think my job is always about providing the mat. Rather, I think sometimes one of the best things I can do is help teachers and learners see the mat that is already there and, better yet, help them know how to look inside and find one themselves.
So on this first day, in any spaces where you are a teacher and learner, I challenge you to nurture a space where true learning—with all its messy, error-filled, failure-ridden parts—can exist, mat and all.
Onward to the first day in whatever classroom of life you are in. Swing away. Getting it wrong is ok. It’s learning. So find ways to allow your students to get it wrong. And don’t forget to be gentle on yourself when you get it wrong. If you do this, with grace and kindness and patience, I believe you will absolutely be doing it right.
You might even hit it out of the park.
Wow… that was magic. How did you do that?