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How to make wonderful mistakes!

One of the most paradigm shifting concepts that I try and help my students (young and old) embrace is that mistakes can actually be helpful. At least the ones that don’t result in death or dismemberment . . . as long as we learn from them.  Scientists and artists must be good at this this.  After all, some of our greatest human discoveries and creations have been the result of mistakes recognized.  But, in education, we so often send the unhealthy message to our students that mistakes are “bad” and that they should do all they can to avoid making them.  The iterative process . . . trying something, seeing what went “wrong”, adjusting, trying again, and again, and again . . . is full of rational risk taking and requires humility and patience. This trial-and-error process is inherent in STEAM learning and (I think) in living a full life. So, why is it that we have such a hard time recognizing our own mistakes and, instead of admitting them, celebrating them?  Take me for one hard-headed example . . . .

A few years ago I was in the baby-step stages of trying out on a few local Tucson schools a Biodiversity PEEK program for teachers in the USA to use and I was darn sure I knew what had to happen.  (I should know to not trust myself when I feel that certain about anything, right?)  I needed to get teachers and kids outside discovering the overlooked life right around their schools AND I needed to make sure they were out there doing real citizen-science by collecting photo data on all that wild, urban and suburban biodiversity. Well…

 "Uh oh, gecko" (c) Paul S. Hamilton, 2015 for The Biodiversity Group
"Uh oh, gecko" (c) Paul S. Hamilton, 2015 for The Biodiversity Group

found a dream-come-true school right near my home and adjacent to Saguaro National Park. It turns out that a little known, skinny pinky finger of the Park had its tip just across the rural road from this elementary school and (get this) the kids never crossed the road and used the trail there! Plus, there was even a no-longer-used, fenced-off, school ball field gone to wild, wild “weeds” just behind the school. A padlocked gate was the only thing keeping the kiddos out. In no time I found a couple teachers eager to go outside to both locations with me and their kids to get photo data.  We immediately did an introductory class where the kids learned to take photos of plants and animals in their school’s small courtyard where some bushes and a few non-native succulents had been planted. The kids were super excited even at just photographing the spider under the stairs and the herd of fuzzy caterpillars covering the sunny South wall. We met with the assistant principal who was all thumbs-up but (and here’s a bit of foreshadowing) looked down and mumbled that he just needed to clear it with the principal. I should have seen what was coming. I’ve worked under quite a number of different public school administrations.

Here was the first glitch: After meeting with Park officials I was able to score permission to take up to 12 kids at a time on that fingerling trail BUT not a single kid toe could ever veer from the designated trail AND they absolutely could not touch anything. Not even a stick. Not even a rock. I ask you, when was the last time you saw a public school classroom with less than two dozen students, never mind one dozen?  It’s not like I planned to have the kids netting butterflies or catching lizards, but I knew they’d need to pry up some dead stumps and flat rocks to find overlooked life in our often hot and dry desert. The Park was now out for PEEK . . . just not enough kid freedom.  Oh well, we had the feral play field, right? Yeah . . . go ahead . . . I feel your snicker.

I still feel the slap-in-the-face e-mail from the assistant principal relaying the inhibiting news from the principal.  Of course she said “No”. “No” to the Park trail and “No” to the old field because she was afraid a child might get poked by a cactus or stung by a bee. (Both things I personally consider a rite of early childhood in Arizona.) But, the assistant principal passed on, we were “free” to continue to take the kids out into the school’s courtyard to get our plant and animal data. I knew that just from their intro lesson the kids had already documented every plant and most every animal in that courtyard for the season. I was super disappointed and I spread that disappointment to the teachers and their kids when I informed them that our Biodiversity PEEKing was done if we were limited to the courtyard.  I offered to help them upload their data and turn some photos into art for their end-of-year art show now that the school, like so many, had lost its art teacher. I offered to help them appeal to the principal, to argue how it is actually healthy (if a tad less “safe”) for the kids to go outside and explore local wildlife. But the teachers were too angry with me for having let down the excited kids, and I was too angry at our fear-based culture for either of us to follow through with anything. I considered writing a quietly smug e-mail to the principal informing her of the fact that the cute, fuzzy caterpillars in her protected courtyard were actually armed with painful, stinging hairs. I think the only reason I didn’t was because I believed she’d miss the irony and simply have them gassed, further upsetting the kids. Instead I covered up my anger by determinedly working with the other, more open schools I found.

"Saguaro spines" by Leah, 4th grader at Borton Elementary School in Tucson, Az
"Saguaro spines" by Leah, 4th grader at Borton Elementary School in Tucson, Az

I was initially blind to my own mistake and the lesson I needed so badly to learn. I continued to feel regret about leaving that school-in-need hanging and just could not get my mind off of it. Finally I had one nerve-wracking, sleepless night too many so that I woke up and saw the obvious:  Our teachers needed natural science lessons that would work even if (heck, especially if) their accessible schoolyards were devoid of wildlife.  Our kids needed to be empowered, active citizens and vocal advocates themselves who could make their own evidence supported arguments to administrators and school boards.  Our kids needed their citizen-science work to extend beyond just collecting “BioBlitz” like data from near school to doing student-designed and student-led biodiversity improvement projects. And, teachers needed easy ways to incorporate natural science and art into their curricula without adding another burden to their overload. So, my big bumbling mistakes of impatience and unreal expectations led me to create what became the framework for our organization’s Biodiversity PEEK STEAM curricula.  Now, instead of feeling bad about making my initial mistakes, I’m reminding myself to appreciate both my bravery for diving in and trying something and for my ability to learn from my screw-ups.

What are some great mistakes you’ve made?

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