Making and Failure

Check out this video featuring Adam Savage from Mythbusters, on Making.

Notable quotes:

Making is inherently risky.  You’re gonna cut yourself, you’re gonna get bruised, you’re gonna mess things up, you’re gonna fail, and that’s absolutely critical.

You know what it’s like?  Our risk-averse culture is like this.  It’s already well-established that kids who live in overly antiseptic environments develop allergies because their immune systems don’t get a chance to develop.  I think that also happens mentally.  So, if you don’t get a chance to fail – if you don’t get a chance to try things and not get them right the first time, but keep on doing it until you get that specific kind of success, then you get so risk-averse that, in effect, you have an allergy to trying new things.  And that is the worst thing you can do to a kid.

I’m thinking about my camp experiences as I post this, but I’m also thinking about the content relationship to teaching.  It’s always been important to me that my students see me fail.  If I collapse a pot, it’s a teachable moment – to talk about recycling, or persistence, or reinvention, depending on the timing.  If I screw up an Illustrator demo, we can have a great conversation about the undo key, or I can invite a student to help problem-solve (they always seem to get a kick out of that).  If I fail visibly, it’s climate control – I show them that it’s okay to do the same thing.  And I want it to be okay, because I don’t think there are many things in life at which we excel before we have a period of failure and fumbling around.  Unless we have prodigal talent at something – rare, precious, but not without its own challenges – failure seems essential.

‘Making’ is such an honest way to teach and learn.  Clay, in particular, is a better teacher than I’ll ever be.  There’s no way one can cheat, procrastinate, or otherwise subvert the media.  Clay will crack, break, or explode if you take shortcuts.  Even without mastery of technique, the product tells a true story of the persistence, problem-solving, and technical understanding of the media.  It’s a direct teacher, too.  If you, as Savage notes, “keep on doing it until you get that specific kind of success,” you will end up learning how to make things.  Sometimes I think that all I really need to do is engage my learners, then stay out of the way.

I’d like to think about teaching as making, too.  It’s definitely more similar to making – with all of its motivations, trial-and-error, and self-evaluation – than to learning by lecture and testing.  In order to teach (or make) well, I think you need to have opportunities to try and fail and reflect and tweak and try again.  Heck, I do this over the course of a day.  Most of the time, my classes at the end of the day get an overall better lesson or presentation than my classes at the day’s start, because I’m constantly adjusting.  But I’ve always been hesitant about colleagues or administrators witnessing my own failures… even though I think that they are just as essential.  Food for thought – why do you think this is the case?

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