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First Attempts In Learning

by Deirdre Bailey

I used to think exclusively in black and white.

I have a sincere appreciation for the clear-cut, precise and absolute and have argued that those who are not 100% sure of their accuracy should not be entitled to an opinion. I have spent most of my life infuriated by indecisiveness and I cringe to acknowledge that I have stormed off in irritation at people who would answer questions with questions instead of concrete opinions. I have been an equally harsh critic of my own confusion and have been guilty of rushing a process in order to arrive at a conclusion I could stand behind.

Recently, my thinking has changed.

At a conference last week, when I was asked to choose an object to represent myself, I chose colored crayons. "Black and white are too singular, there just isn't enough room for progression in them," I reasoned, "you've got to have room for the process when you're learning. You've got to be able to make use of all those colors and their ability to blend, to mask and to complement." What I am recognizing is that absolutes are finite where learning is infinite and if you are open to it, then you can never be finished with it.

What this means for learners is that the process of moving ever closer to your goal will, at some point, necessitate feedback which might recognize and identify that you are not yet "there." That is the hard part. Inquiry is an elastic framework within which you have room to expand, to reach out and explore. But that elastic will recoil if you push too quickly or forcefully in one direction. The question will keep bringing you back, sometimes harshly if you run with an idea too "absolutely."

I have recognized for a while now that feedback is necessary to the learning process. What I have recognized recently is that it can be a tough reality check when you are at your most excited; it is difficult to believe you have perfected a drawing, only to discover that your red needs to deepen to purple.

The lesson however, is not that the excitement should be tapered because recoil hurts. Neither is it that you should always expect a recoil. The lesson is that you should always be grateful for the added beauty of the re-direction, change in perspective or supplementary color. The challenge, as Maya Angelou so beautifully puts it, is that:

"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."

As a society, we so rarely celebrate those moments in which we realize that our learning has hit a roadblock, that we are at risk of avoiding them entirely as we do not effectively value their worth. My first reaction to critical feedback is to defend myself. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe because I have been conditioned to see this feedback as critique of my ability and self worth? After all, traditional education has effectively perpetuated a grading system in which academic standards are an implement with which we are encouraged to measure ourselves.

Perhaps shockingly, it is only recently that I have come to realize that no one has it all figured out, especially not the people who are acting like they do. Part of the inquiry process has to be understanding that you can never have all the answers. Part of never having all the answers has to mean that sometimes, you just might not be able to conclude a conversation with an absolute that blows all criticism to pieces and puts the argument to rest forever. Terry Pratchett has a great quote that states:

"The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it."

The beauty of inquiry is that this trouble becomes an advantage as it adds to, conflicts with, redirects or refocuses what you already know and you, ultimately, become more colorful for it.

F.A.I.L.; First Attempt In Learning


Colin Matheson said...

I was listening to the recent This American Life
about how we celebrate great scientists but often forget that they spent years failing or had countless other crazy theories that weren't true (Newton and Alchemy). Being so answer/discovery based in science education means we don't prepare students for what science is. We also give a false sense that smart people get the right answer and dumb people get the wrong answer. Smart people are the ones who keep trying after they get the wrong answer.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate how you so eloquently share the story of your journey as a learner and teacher and your observation that learning is infinite. You make a profound point with reference to the many transitions of the butterfly. I have found that the process of preparing a document for example, involves many iterations and becomes richer when I am able to benefit from the perspectives of others. You share some significant insights in regard to the complexity and beauty of inquiry. I look forward to reading more of your reflections. Garry McKinnon

Unknown said...

Hi Colin!
I just finished listening to the episode of the "This American Life" you shared. It was so good! I don't think I'd really considered this aspect of work in science or how we approach it, even as I wrote about failure. It has been enlightening for all of our students to more actively consider the value of failure in math and science. Their learning has definitely accelerated as they become less fearful of "wrong answers". The last line of your comment is a brilliant one.
Thank you,

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