Tag: learning

Now Go Make Some Mistakes!

I remember a lesson I learned when I was playing violin in the Oklahoma All-State Orchestra. I believe I was a senior in high school, and we were rehearsing the William Tell Overture. If I remember correctly, which I may not, our guest conductor that year was the conductor of the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra. I remember only two things he taught us, and neither of them had anything to do with the actual music. (By the way, if you’ve never heard the cello solo at the beginning of the William Tell Overture, do yourself a favor and go look it up. The Lone Ranger section isn’t the best part of the piece.)

First, always always always have a pencil (not a pen) ready during rehearsal, and use it. You cannot possibly remember at the performance everything you should remember, so make yourself notes. Write on the music. Help yourself out. Tidy sheet music is much less important than a good performance.

But the second lesson is the point of this post. I remember him saying, “If you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one. Make one that everyone hears!” This is something I have shared with students over the years and without fail, they always give me a funny look. After all, who wants to make a big mistake that everyone hears? Wouldn’t a small discrete one be better?

So why is this a good idea? This is good advice because most of the time you won’t make the mistake. But let’s say you do make a mistake, hit a wrong note, or play the right note at the wrong time, at least all the other notes you play correctly will be played well and with confidence, which will produce a much better performance than a timid player who is afraid of making that one mistake.

I am by nature a very careful person. If I am not absolutely sure of something, I don’t like to say it. If I can’t be 100% sure of success, I’d rather practice some more, study some more, before I go out and try and risk making a mistake. But I think that conductor over 20 years ago was on to something.

If we look at the way children learn, we see that it is from repetition and mistakes, and even repeated mistakes. Sitting, walking, eating, talking, and every other skill learned within the first two years is preceded by repeated failure. Even after two years of constant practice, mistakes are still made, and we adults expect that. Babies are not afraid of falling when they take that first step, and their adults are not afraid of them falling. Even a baby that stumbles and hurts herself often will not even cry unless the adults in the room make a big deal of it.

The acquisition of language skills absolutely requires making mistakes. The reason immersion into a language is the best way to learn it is because it forces the student to make mistakes and learn from them.

So where along the way do we become so careful, so fearful of messing up? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think some of it should be unlearned. I would much rather work with a student who is excited, willing to try, wanting to get in there and do something, than the student who is scared and timid.

Oh, I don’t expect mistakes and failures to ever feel good. They will always be embarrassing. But I need to remember that, and I believe it was my granddad who used to say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong while you learn to do it right “.

So practice, rehearse, and use that pencil, but then when it comes time to get the job done, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one.

Keep Catching Apes And Silly Elephants: Don’t Forget Those Silly Elephants


My husband is a professor at a seminary, teaching master’s degree students.  He holds a PhD in Religion from Temple University.  We were married the entire time he was getting his PhD, and we have spoken a lot about education since both of us are heavily involved in that field, though at very different levels.

I had an epiphany the other day that I’d like to share.  I realized that it’s not my fault.  I didn’t know any better.

In high school and college, given a research paper in nursing, history, music, or almost anything else, I could write a paper that would get an A.  However, there were a few professors whom I just couldn’t please.  These tended to be in literature  classes.  Looking back on it, and being married to a professor just like these frustrating people, I can totally see what I was doing wrong.  And little did I know that I was probably frustrating them as much as they were frustrating me.

You see, I thought a research paper was to exhibit what I had learned by doing research.  Silly me.  Well, they were to some extent, but now I know that to get that A, I needed to start making connections, drawing conclusions, and refuting ideas that I disagreed with.  And there should have been things I disagreed with.  I was supposed to not just answer questions, but to question answers.

This brings me to the title of my post: Keep Catching Apes And Silly Elephants.  No, that is not advice for your next African safari.  It is a mnemonic device to help remember this list of learning objectives: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.  This is called Bloom’s Taxonomy, and I was taught this catchy little sentence in about the 3rd grade, when I was supposed to understand it, but in reality had no clue what it meant.  I am still by no means an expert, but I think I know enough to explain the basics.  (Since the time when I was in the third grade, they have changed the names of some of the categories, and I apologize for the outdated information, but even though the elephants and apes don’t fit the sentence any more, they will forever be in my mind as elephants and apes.)

Most of my schooling was focused on the left side of this sentence.  I was taught facts.  I was taught processes.  I was even taught catchy little sentences to help me remember a list of learning objectives.  But I wasn’t really taught to think.  Oh they tried.  Through the same program that taught me about apes and elephants, a few of us had a “Gifted And Talented” class for an hour once a week in which we did exercises in logic, creative thinking, critical thinking, with a little art and writing thrown in.  (I guess the majority of kids, who didn’t qualify for this program, were just up a creek.)  But since it was only an hour a week, taken instead of one of our other classes (so the other teacher’s weren’t very thrilled about this idea of us skipping their classes), focused on the right side of the sentence with the other 31.5 hours on the left.  No wonder my writing was shallow.

These teachers in the G/T program were trying their best to pull the rest of the educational system along with them so that all could be more enlightened, but they were just scooping water from the ocean with a leaky cup; the ideas were not given the resources or attention to really take effect.  To be fair, I’m still not sure how a teacher is supposed to get 25 or 30 students per class, with 5 classes a day, writing with not only correct grammar, sentence structure, and paragraph construction, but also get them to reach the next level and think critically instead of just spouting facts.

So when I got to college and had trouble even getting B’s in literature classes no matter whether I spent 3 hours or 3 weeks on a paper (so of course I eventually figured out I should lean toward the 3 hours), it was very frustrating.  But it wasn’t my fault.  I hadn’t been taught to write in a way that exhibited THINKING.  I had been taught to memorize, do research, write with proper grammar, and many other skills, but I must have missed the classes in how to THINK, draw my OWN conclusions and (gasp) ARGUE for them, and then write about THAT.  Now that would have gotten me an A.

So as I teach my children, I am teaching them facts.  They should be able to find England on a map.  They should know the steps of the scientific method.  They should know how to construct a proper sentence.  There are some things that we just need to know to be good citizens of the world.  However, I am just as concerned that they learn how to ask questions, how to come up with their own ideas, and how to argue for their validity.  They should know not only how to answer questions, but also be able to question answers.

So it wasn’t my fault.  Nobody taught me differently.  If somebody had just called me aside for 10 minutes and told me to take the next step, go to the next level, that 4.0 would have been mine.