Music Ed Mondays – Life Includes Mistakes (Part 1)

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never do anything original.”

– Sir Ken Robinson
author, “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”

 (this one is quite long, but split into parts, so I hope that you’ll stick around for the read)

If there is one thing that high school students really seem to be scared of, it’s making mistakes.  Maybe there’s more at stake for them, maybe it’s a contagion of low self-esteem or maybe it’s just psychological and emotional development during that time of their lives.

(It isn’t just high school students, though, right? It’s all of us, myself included)

In any case, the fear of making mistakes sabotages any attempt at authenticity in oneself because you’ll be assessing every decision you make and whether or not it’s “the right one.”  Hopefully, we’re teaching our kids that there aren’t “right” decisions and “wrong” decisions; but rather, different decisions for different situations and with a different mix of positive and negative consequences.  When viewed in that lens, I want my kids to make decisions that maximize their long-term positive benefits while minimizing their long-term negative ones.

An instance where fear has sabotaged our band room was when we were holding auditions for our symphonic ensembles (our audition bands that run outside of the timetable).  This was the first year in many where we said that we wanted them to play for us before we would admit them into the group.  What we expected were many of our strong players to be eager about a new challenge and some fun (and hard) new repertoire to enjoy, but that’s not what happened.

Instead, we had only a few students prepare the audition and play for us and many of our strongest instrumentalists didn’t even try.  It was shocking – it was the exact opposite result that we predicted.  When we first asked, there were excuses about being too busy or having too much math this semester and the like, but when we kept asking and talking to our students about it, the truth kept coming out and it was the same truth for the vast majority of them:

“I don’t want to try out if there’s a chance I won’t get in.”

To be said another way:

“I’m too scared to try because I might fail.”

And we thought to ourselves “is this what our program has become?” But then we looked at the evidence – how we taught our classes, the values we tried to reinforce (honesty, risk-taking-within-reason, authenticity, etc.) and the way that we spoke to our students and it was didn’t fit what was happening.

But, as educators, have we been reinforcing this idea of “it’s bad to make mistakes” all along? It’s how we assess tests and how we assign numerical grades on assignments that hinge on the number of “correct answers or mechanics” (depending on your area) and we do this starting at a very young age.  What we’ve been doing, essentially, is stigmatizing mistakes and lately, I’ve really been feeling that this not an appropriate way to reinforce learning.

In the Music Room, we (Michael Brandon and I) have really been trying to unteach the stigmatization of errors and we do so for a few reasons.

Firstly, it’s not realistic to be perfect all the time – in both school and life.

Secondly, if students are only doing what they can do perfectly (and doing it perfectly everytime), then we aren’t teaching them anything, we’re just reinforcing what they already know.  If they aren’t making mistakes, they aren’t being led into uncharted territory.  There is a time where we can send our kids into a pedagogical forest without a map, but when they find a dead end, we shouldn’t punish them for it, but instead reinforce their thinking of “I guess the way out isn’t this way, so maybe I’ll try another approach or direction.”  Isn’t that how we learn by experience in our own lives? When we get into a relationship that is stressful or incongruent with what we want, don’t we usually get out and say think “well, maybe some of those qualities aren’t what I want in a partner after all,” or “there are too many impediments to my happiness here, so maybe I’ll try another approach or direction?”  Again, school can reflect life.

Thirdly, what kind of self-esteem are we establishing for them? I acknowledge that if they play a rhythm or spell a word wrong it isn’t a slam on their personality, but if we assess their mistakes and evaluate them on their mistakes, that does affect how they view themselves, usually negatively.  Strangely, though, it so often happens in the reverse circumstances that we expect, where the struggling kids scream with joy at a 60% and the top kids scoff at a 95% (as though the 5% off were some sort of punishment).  Not always, but more often than one would expect.

As this is going to be a two-part post, I want to use this post to diagnose (what I think is) the problem.  The second post will be more about acting upon it – what can we do in our classroom to reinforce that mistakes are an essential part of learning, in both school and life?

We’ll see 🙂

Thanks for reading,

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