Mistakes: Also Known as Learning Opportunities

Humans seem to be programmed to fear failure, especially when it comes to the areas of our life that we are most invested in: work, school, relationships. I’d wager a guess that each of you can think of a moment in the last week that this fear of failure caused you to hesitate before taking a some sort of leap.

One of the most liberating and attractive aspects of the arts is the alleviation of this constant and somewhat irrational fear. Artists are not exempt from making mistakes because, after all, we are still human beings. But creative success comes from the ability to learn from these mistakes. The arts provide a place where we all can succeed. The arts do not provoke right or wrong, yes or no, questions as frequently. The arts create a forum for everyone’s ideas and endeavors.

Giving myself permission to make a mistake has always been a challenge. But as I process new experiences and grow as a teaching artist, failure isn’t the worst-case scenario anymore. If an activity falls on its face in class, it’s hardly the end of the world. I pick up and move on to the next thing. The important part of failure is the reflection and figuring out why something failed and whether or not it’s something that could have been avoided. (On the flip side, it’s equally important to analyze our successes!) I do this a lot in teaching, and these conversations have generated some of the most interesting dialogues and exciting planning meetings with my co-teachers.

All of this begs the question: WHY is failure more accepted in the arts and not in other areas, specifically other academic subjects in schools? I think it comes down to the process vs. product dichotomy and debate. The permission to make mistakes is created by embracing and celebrating failure as part of the learning process. There’s that word again. Process. Isn’t that what schools should be about? But in a world that is so focused on academic performance (the product being test scores and grades), mistakes slow us down. Failure becomes this big, scary, terrible thing that we are taught to avoid at all costs.

Why can’t we celebrate failure in schooling, as we do in the arts, as something that creates opportunities for learning?

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