Failure 101

I’ve recently started a new adventure in mosaic art. To say this was an unexpected turn would be a significant understatement. Through the grace and gifts of a talented community education teacher, I’ve been reversing 50+ years of believing I could not possibly do anything worthwhile in the visual arts. It has been more than a little frightening. In fact, let me quote just a bit from my original account (from the Spring 2011 LEARNing Landscapes).

The first day of the class I was nervous but found my way to the studio, built in a detached garage behind the instructor’s home. Opening the door felt a bit like walking into an art supply store that had exploded. There were mobiles hanging from the ceiling–some of beads, some of toys—and a skein of plastic flamingos dangling in one corner. There were boxes of beads, crates of glass, broken dishes and bins of unidentifiable objects covering three walls. In the middle of the room was a tall wooden worktable at which about half the students were busily working, and the other half were sitting, looking about as dazed as I felt. I sat on a tall stool with the other obvious newcomers. . . The teacher looked at us and said, “Do you know what you want to make?” My first thought was, “Uhhhh, a mosaic??” but I couldn’t quite bring myself to say it.

That was about a year and a half ago. I took the plunge with significant anxiety, but though there have been lots of chances to revise and redo, I’ve been generally happy with the results.

But creative efforts don’t come without risk. “Risk taking” is always included in lists of characteristics associated with creativity. Going beyond what is known is, by definition, uncertain.  And sometimes when we take risks, we fail. Recently I made the first mosaic that I really didn’t like. It was a switch plate cover for my living room, made, in part, from the shards of a vase that fell (literally) victim to the mantle-that-fell-off-the-fireplace. I worked on it for several weeks, looked at it and didn’t like what I saw. Since it was near the end of class, I put it away and went home, thinking the piece was soon to be relegated to the basement.

During the following week, two interesting things happened. First, my teacher e-mailed with some suggestions I might try to revise the switch plate. But perhaps more importantly, I realized it didn’t matter if the suggestions worked or not. Since that first day, when an early failure might have sent me out the door, I had come to a place where I believed that even if one project turned out to be a dud, it didn’t mean everything I did was going to be bad. That sounds simple, but you’ll have to trust me that in this context, it was a big deal. In this new adventure, I could fail one day and do well the next. Amazing.

It has made me think more about how we help students prepare for, and weather, the days when the creative risks they take don’t work out. I’m going to think more about risk and failure in coming posts, but for now I’d be interested to hear what you do. How do you help students gain the experiences and confidence necessary for the days their creative efforts are less successful?

Oh, and the switch plate? It turned out all right in the end, and is installed near my front door, testimony to my teacher’s nudging and the transitory nature of failure.switch plate

6 thoughts on “Failure 101

  1. First of all kudos on the switch plate!! It is both stunning and complex. The patterns remind me of my brain as it stretches to dark inner recesses while trying to figure out answers to questions like, “What’s outside of space,” or “What on earth was my son thinking when he did ‘that’?”

    To answer what my son may have been thinking when he did ‘that’,I must understand his creative process and give him freedom in which he may explore implementation of his ideas. To help students gain confidence in creativity they must first be set up in situations that foster creativity. For instance as a group, I like to facilitate discussion to come up with themes for projects, provide them choice of how to carry out academic tasks, and facilitate active discussion that prompts students to collaboratively establish steps and processes needed to carry out those tasks.

    When students carry out tasks and they find it doesn’t work the way they’d like, it’s best to ask them to self-evaluate. Have them point out what did work during the creative process and evaluate what they would have done differently. Instead of leading students to a term of ‘failure’ it’s better to examine how the student would ‘tweak’ the process for next time. Examining the ‘tweak’ is also fostering creativity.

    Using attribution theory can be a great framework to use when helping students gain confidence in their successes in creative efforts. If students are blaming external causes to success or lack of success of a creative task (i.e. it was an easy light switch plate to make, that’s why I did well, or the glass was just too slippery so it didn’t come out that nicely), I try to suss out time and energy they spent on the task. That way they learn to recognize they have control of how successful they are. For example instead of claiming the task was just easy (external causes), the student recognizes how hard he or she studied or spent the time necessary to successfully complete the task (internal causes).

    If students practice recognizing and attribute their involvement in their success and their involvement in situations that need ‘tweaking’, they are set up to confidently understand control they have when attempting creative efforts. Also, just because a student does NOT care for the outcome of a creative endeavor does not mean he or she failed. Self-evaluation can help students recognize effort put into the process and how the practice will help them improve on outcomes next time.


  2. Good comment. If we’re talking about group instruction, peer interaction is a major variable in being willing to take risk. Same sex instruction helps with that, but even within the groups of boys or girls, there are subgroups that ridicule anything different than what is the norm for their particular clique. Kids need to feel free to pursue the subjects and issues that interest them, especially in high school. This is an obvious point, but kids need to create in the particular learning style that is predominant for each. A hands on guy is not likely to be willing to take a creative risk in a visual task, etc. I have loved my job as a one on one music instructor because we could tailor the topic, pace, and style according to the interests and strengths of each individual, and how I loved the kids for their differences. Classroom work, now that’s a different beast. Kudos to the classroom teacher who sees the group as a collection of individuals!


  3. Creating a positive learning community is the first step in establishing a creative classroom. Students must know that whatever they do is accepted by others. The teacher sets the tone – students take cues from the teacher. If the teacher does not allow for mistakes than students will forever be trying to get the “right” answer. This is especially true in elementary school.

    I teach third graders. At the beginning of the year we set the groundwork for establishing our learning community by agreeing on classroom rules. This year I posed the question “Who are we?” One boy said, “We are peaceful.” I loved it and included it in our classroom rules. Now when things go awry in our classroom when a student name calls or is physically unsafe, we gather and discuss what it means to be peaceful. I hold each student accountable to be part of creating a peaceful classroom.

    We have also spend quite a bit of time talking about how we often learn more from mistakes that are made than just by knowing the correct answer.

    P.S. Love the switch plate cover – very creative:)


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