“Try! Fail! Fix!” is My New Mantra

Prompt: “Never help a child with a task at which he feels like he can succeed.” – Maria Montessori. How do you feel about this quote in terms of your own educational experience?

I hadn’t heard this quote before this week, but I’m glad to know it now and have a chance to think about how it applies to my educational experiences. I won’t discuss my experience in LIBR 240 too much because Sara already did an incredible job describing being in our class — so I will point you to her post called Agency is Terrifying and Exhilarating.

I will say that this quote fits my new-found perspective on my educational experiences now, especially in my library classes and in 240 in particular, but it kind of didn’t fit my experiences for a long time, especially when I was younger. In my elementary, middle school, and even high school years, various teachers (and especially my parents) were incredibly supportive — almost to a fault. I was encouraged to learn, but help was always offered and my positive reception of the help was always inherently expected — with or without my requesting it– to do things the right way or the easiest way or the quickest way, etc. It was sort of a sense like, “this is the way you do it, there are no other ways. If you do it this way and fail, then something’s wrong with you or what you did and failure is a bad thing.” Ok, that might sound a bit harsh. I’m not trying to insinuate that creativity and exposure to a variety of learning experiences was completely stifled, but I feel my education was pretty rigid and sort of “old school”, in that sense. There wasn’t a lot of room to say, “no, I’ve got it, I’m just going to go about it differently.”

My sister went to a Montessori school for a while and had a very different education than I did. In some ways I’m sort of envious of her memories and experiences! Failure, for me, was scary and frustrating and it meant that I wasn’t up to the task or I just wasn’t smart enough to figure something out. I felt like failure was personal and it reflected on me, not my understanding or production of something. My sister took failure and ran with it. It wasn’t as scary to her — it became a tool for her to adapt to and learn from.

Now, I’m proud to say I fail on a regular basis. As Sara mentioned in her post, learning how to code and write in programming languages in 240 is terrifying and exhilarating. You should expect to make lots of mistakes and you should expect for things to not work.  You should also expect to feel amazing when you learn from your mistakes and something does work! I’ve felt so dumb… and then felt like a magician during some amazing light bulb moments! Having to figure something out on my own is still sort of scary for me — but I’m slowly learning that it’s okay and, in fact, it can make me feel really good.

I took another version of 287 last term called The Hyperlinked Library (I think some of my fellow classmates were also in that class). It was an amazing environment in which to learn. Our teacher, Michael Stephens, promoted a sense of safety and security as we were allowed to “think out loud” and share imperfect ideas, imperfectly, sometimes. I never felt afraid to make mistakes in that class, mostly because I knew that they would be examined as an example of growth, not something to be ashamed of or penalized for.

My confidence in my ability to think and write and express myself has grown so much since I started library school — and I think Montessori’s quote really explains why. My professors, on the whole, have not been helicopters or bad cops or dictators. They’ve been supportive, encouraging, and dynamic. They’ve deliberately challenged me, left me little gaps in which I’ve had to think for myself, encouraged me to close that space and fill it in with my own thoughts and ideas and words and mistakes — not just duplicate copies of their own. I’ve grown so much in a personal and professional sense because of this. My education here hasn’t been “repeat my words verbatim, it will be on the test”; it’s been “here’s what I think, what do you think?” It’s been collaborative and creative and incredibly freeing.

It’s like for the first time I’ve been explicitly told: your ideas are valid. You are valid. If you think you can do it, do it. If you think you can’t do it, make a mistake. Learn from it and do it again. It’s okay.

Back to this week. It was really interesting reading about the new options for teaching kids about technology and coding, including some lists of amazing resources for first-time learners. I wish I would have been introduced to coding/programming or even basic technological tools a lot earlier in my educational career. I was particularly struck by the Life with Raspberry Pi: Sparking a School Coding Revolution article by Chad Sansing and the idea that “using tools like the RPi to bring the Maker movement into libraries and schools is a powerful way to combat academic passivity”. Bingo. “Academic passivity” is a perfect way to describe the purgatory of learning that I lingered in for so many years in my various schools. Only in the last few years have I really felt like I’ve created a legacy of work that I’m proud of and passionate about, one that hasn’t always come easy but sure feels good.

I smiled when I read about how the kids were basically chanting as they were working, “Try! Fail! Fix!” I love this! I wish I been taught this mantra as a child. At least now I can use it as an adult. 🙂

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