There is a danger in seeking finished perfection in all that we do. There is a risk that our students will focus solely on the attributes that define a finished piece and overlook the importance of the process that leads to it. With a shift in our mindset we might be able to celebrate this process and encourage our students to value the learning that occurs along the way.
Carol Dweck’s writing on Mindsets has had a significant effect within education. Her research informs us that an individual’s beliefs about their potential to expand their cognitive and creative abilities and their success in doing so is closely linked. Believe you can improve and you have taken the first step towards achieving your goal. For teachers the lesson is that we can play a powerful role in developing the Growth Mindset of our learners through the things we value, the feedback we provide and the culture in which we situate their learning. If we value the processes of learning, creating, thinking and collaborating more than we value the finished product we send a message to our students that we see learning as a continuous act with mistakes, failures and refinement as essential components.
Failure is a concept with an unhappy history. At times it has been deeply admonished and hidden from view. Individuals who failed were to be shunned or punished. At other times failure was to be avoided by setting the bar for success so low that failure was impossible. The result of this movement was that success became meaningless, achievable by all without risk and through little effort. More recently failure is seen as a part of the learning process, an inevitable consequence of trying something new. Einstein said ‘Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new’. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and Space X is quoted as saying 'Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.' A culture that accepts failure as a part of the learning process will need to take time to celebrate the steps taken towards learning as much as it celebrates the finished product.
There is an unhealthy obsession in schools with displaying a public face made up of pristine student works that hide and devalue the reality of learning as a messy process full of mistakes and revisions. Maybe this traces back to a time when Gutenberg’s press was literally the final word in publishing. The costs involved in printing required a determined effort to avoid errors. In schools publishing persists as a part of the creative process of writing and sharing with similar expectations for quality in the published works as that set for those printed on a press. This fascination with publishing as the path to perfect finished works persists in the digital age only when the very nature of digital works as open to constant refinement and reworking is ignored. Digital allows levels of accuracy and precision not achievable in other ways but also presents the possibility for a published work to be revisited time and time again by its originator and by yet unknown, future collaborators. A digital work of art, of music of writing is never truly finished, it grows and transforms over time.
Taking time to celebrate the unfinished product within the learning process is one idea Guy Claxton encouraged during his presentations at the International Conference on Thinking (ICOT). Claxton encourages teachers to ban erasers from their classrooms so that student mistakes are there to see. The message to the students is that mistakes are something that you learn from, a marker of the learning that has occurred and not something to be banished from view. Claxton believes that in a classroom that allows erasers students are taught that smart students don’t make mistakes, a message he insists we must avoid sending. In his classes mistakes are a sign that the learning is not pitched at a level below the needs of the students; if the students are not making mistakes when they engage with new learning the expectation has been set too low.
In seeking an opportunity to celebrate unfinished works Claxton described a school art show titled ‘We never finish anyth” that displayed student artworks in their unfinished glory. Unfinished art in particular has a certain appeal and energy that may allow students to see the creative process and their ability to participate in it differently. Dr Karren Serres discussed the potential of unfinished artwork when interviewed by the BBC about a display at the Courtauld Gallery. "At a more aesthetic level unfinished works have a quality and appeal all of their own. We can imagine the possibilities of what they would look like if they were finished, but at the same time they have a ghostly quality that is also very beautiful.’ Picasso had a definite view on finishing his artworks 'Woe to you the day it is said that you are finished! To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul – to give it its final blow; the most unfortunate one for the painter as well as for the picture.’ He also identified with the role of accidents not as mistakes but as an inevitable part of the process and the path to discovering humanity in art 'Accidents, try to change them - it's impossible. The accidental reveals man.’ Claxton encourages schools to explore the use of unfinished artworks as stimulus material for students as part of a culture that values process over finished perfection.
Schools that have embraced a Design Thinking approach have the foundation required for a culture that values process over product. Embracing mistakes and failure as part of the learning process needs to be accompanied by a clear message that we are to learn from these situations. What must be avoided is a belief that mistakes are to be accepted without an equal emphasis on identifying and understanding their causes. This model neither admonishes nor ignores mistakes but sees them as fodder for the next lesson, the next attempt in learning, the many stepping-stones to success. Within a rapid prototyping/design thinking approach this attitude towards mistakes is baked into the process, each turning of the design cycle will reveal new lessons from the mistakes of the previous iteration. With opportunities for reflective practice and metacognition real learning can become part of a process that the students are eager to engage in free from fears that their failures are a measure of their fixed and predetermined ability.
By Nigel Coutts