This post was a long time coming. The quote that starts this post was packed with so much meaning for me regarding the needs of students. I needed time to reflect on what path to take with it. That, and I was in the midst of a 6 part series on Differentiated Instruction for Edutopia (See my publications page to read those articles). There is sometimes a conflicting message in Education. One says that students learn at different paces, yet teachers might succumb to the pressures of “coverage”, leading to unintentional sacrifices to learning. Hopefully this post about embracing mistakes as growth opportunities will help to empower teacher voice for what’s best for students.
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Education is Like Yoga IV: To Error is to Grow by John McCarthy, Ed.S.
“The strongest students are not those who appear to have ‘mastered’ a pose. The strongest students are those who are willing to show their vulnerability and fall out of a pose– and then begin again. Namaste!” –Yoga Instructor
Some yoga sessions, I get frustrated from struggling to do a pose that I performed well in the past. It’s self-defeating to brow beat myself, and yoga practitioners would advise me to let go of the thought and focus on my breathing. The real issue about making mistakes is pride and impatience. I want to close the gap with those amazing participants who do so much more with their bodies and mind. This thinking fails to accept that there is no end to the poses. Just when I think I’ve mastered a movement, there is another level to strive for, and some skills may take years to attain if I’m dedicated in my practice.
Learning in Education is similar. The current trend towards national standards, such as the Common Core (CCSS) and initiatives in Texas (TEKs) and Virginia (SoL), set levels for depth of understanding of a range of skills in the different content areas. Knowledge might be quantified, but mastery of skills and concepts is fluid. When teaching writing craft, focusing on persuasive and argumentative essays leads to varying levels of mastery. In this example, CCSS ELA.Writing.01 is addressed at different levels by grade. What a 12th grader’s level of competency with such essays is different from that of a 9th or 8th grader. So when a 9th grader demonstrates mastery that exceeds the quality level expected of him, what is a teacher’s obligation?
Education is like Yoga in that we stretch that 9th grader to new levels of growth. We provide a learning culture where he does not compare himself to others and think, “I’m fine where I am, because I’m ahead of everyone else.” We coach him towards 1+ year growth—as we do with all of our students. Through struggle and embracing our imperfections we learn a great deal about ourselves—leading to developing a stronger core and a wider range to our skills.
In life and Yoga, learning happens through self-awareness and collaboration. When I reach to the ground from a standing position, I flex my knees, hold my core, and keep my back straight. I’d love to straighten my legs while gripping my toes, as others in the class do with ease. It’s not yet available to me. I work on doing correctly what I can perform so that when one day I straighten my legs I have good posture and core strength. I could hunch down to grab my feed just to say I did it. The result would be to ingrain bad habits. Every so often I feel the steady hand of the Yoga Instructor down my back to remind me to keep my back straight and to show me how much further down I can actually reach.
In Education, students learn from their mistakes and success only when they know what to look for and practice. When teachers give the gift of time, students learn skills with proper structure. Coaching helps students to reflect on what made their successes happen, especially in the midst of what may appear to be a setback. Mentors also help students see their growth at times when they may believe none exists. Time for learning must trump coverage. Otherwise the student get’s so lost in the yoga flow or the academic lesson that frustration forces a mental shutdown-an end to participation.
When my students do not succeed or underperform, I look first towards my practice. What did I do? How could I communicate and support differently so that the students find success? I diagnose the students’ work to determine what they have accomplished so as to build support that extends from the point of their current skill base. This avoids unnecessary repetitions, and acknowledges their accomplishments. I seek advice from peers who I believe will either tell me what I need to know, even if it may be hard to receive, or ask me the questions that empower my uncovering the answers for myself. In Yoga, this happens constantly through the flows that participants do and the voice & touch of the Yoga instructor.
At the end of class, students should leave with a feeling of accomplishment that they’re leaving in a different place in their learning then when they came. They should feel refreshed, even when mentally exhausted from your rigorous learning experiences, so that they privately look forward to coming back—to repeat the cycle.