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The world is a forgiving place…so why can’t we see Einstein’s first draft?

October 26, 2011

Recently, I’ve had a thought about the classroom I’d like to teach in. And it goes something like this:

Student: I’ll never get physics—

Me: Sure you will—look at the improvement you are making from your last assessment.

Student: Sure, I’m not writing down naked numbers and all, that’s fine. But I don’t get physics. I mean, I’m not Einstein or anything.

me: Oh, really? Let’s take a look at what Einstein was struggling with when he was 14. (goes to computer—loads up, and activates time machine). Got it—see right here—Einstein is working on some very similar ideas in math to what you are doing in geometry—and he’s making mistakes. In fact, what makes Einstein Einstein isn’t that he was some perfect genius—we all make mistakes. But Einstein was willing to work past those mistakes and struggle with the things that troubled him the most in physics, for more than a decade, until he came up with the General Theory of Relativity.

I’ve come to believe that mistake making is a critical ingredient to learning, and we do our students a huge disservice when we hold ourselves or others up as experts who just “possess” perfect knowledge without also showing them the path that was taken to get them there.

And that’s why I long for a transformed world where I can pull up Einstein’s 9th grade math test, a recording from one John Coltrane’s earliest performances as a young musician, or a high school English essay from Toni Morrison. I want my students to see that more often than not, many of the successful people they see around them today started just were they are—as nervous, directionless adolescents, unsure of whether they had any passions, just trying to make it through the rite of passage we call high school.

This is—at it’s heart—what the capstone process is all about. I’m honestly not all that psyched about students putting together awesome physics projects on the internet. What I am excited about is students starting from the very beginning a question or idea, and carefully refining that idea by using the best resources available to them—collaboration with the world at large, and seeing those ideas grow.

Just yesterday, a student asked me a question about a capstone he’d been working on:

I have one question. I am studying why a curveball curves. Why does the boundary layer separate at a higher point when the ball has topspin?

I don’t have the slightest idea of how the rotation of the ball contributes to boundary layer separation, but I bet if this student takes the next step forward and posts this question to a blog, and we work to make sure enough eyeballs see it, someone will have a a hint or question that will push this student further along his path.

That’s what I wish for each of us—teachers, students and citizens at-large—that each of us have a place where we can share ideas and make mistakes publicly, fully embracing the process of prototyping. If we do this, I think we will accelerate learning and innovation in a way never before imagined. If you want to see an example of this, just check out the amazing series of comments left for Josh Gates’s students when Josh posted their capstone ideas to his blog:

Capstone Proposals-Feeback Wanted

As of this moment there are 23 comments on this post, from all over the country. A physics professor took the time to record a screencast with suggestions and feedback. Almost a dozen of Brian Carpenter’s AP Physics Students from Laurel School in Ohio have offered suggestions, and many more people I don’t even know have suggested ideas.

Seriously, when a student last submitted an idea for a paper or project topic to you—how much feedback did you give him or her? A sentence? A paragraph at the most? How incredible is it that you can now literally get substantial feedback from the world, from peers, from other teachers, from professors and just curious outsiders (like one of my student’s uncles, who took the time to write up more than a page of feedback to his nephew on his physics capstone project). This feedback is of a completely different magnitude from what one teacher can provide, and I think it leads to learning that simply cannot be compared to the typical schoolish work I used to do and grade that was forever hidden inside my classroom.

Here’s the radical part. I think this sharing should begin from the very beginning—from the moment a student has an idea, exactly like what we see in Josh’s post. Isn’t this hard you, you say? Isn’t it dangerous? Isn’t there some chance the student might be making a mistake, and won’t that mistake be indelibly carved on the stone tablets of the internet forever?

Yes, this is hard. Students need encouragement and lots of guidance to embrace this process. They are often just as reluctant as the most internet-phobic adult when you ask them to share their first ideas and questions about a project. But all this changes the moment they get feedback, and realize that someone other than their teacher cares about their work. This is a transformative step. Suddenly what they are doing matters for much more than a grade, and they have resources to help them on the journey they never imagined.

But what about the mistakes? Don’t we want to shield students and only have them post their very best work online? No. One reason is the case I’ve made before is that by sharing the complete story of learning—the genesis of that excellent poem from truly awful beginnings sets an incredible example of learning for others. Doing this also gives the student much more perspective and insight into his/her own process of creation, and reminds him/her of the value of the process, rather than focusing on and being satisfied with the end result. For a few students I teach who are so obsessed by perfection that they fear making any mistakes, this is truly the most important lesson of all.

But what about the kid? Won’t they be harmed by having that terrible first draft out there? I’ve heard adults tell stories that things like this might keep someone from getting hired years down the road. After all—every employer now Googles prospective candidates, and what might happen if a Google search turned up some unpolished high school paper when you’re applying for a job at a prestigious law firm?

Here are few thoughts. Within a few years, I think having a Google search turn up nothing on your name will be every bit as damming as having it turn up a cache of facebook photos of your drunk and misbehaving at frat parties. I bet in many fields today, such as marketing, having no online presence shows you are missing key skills necessary for success in the field. Moreover, if a student devotes enough effort to going back and revising work, and following the process of prototyping, I think employers will be even more impressed by the fact that a student was willing to make 4 or 5 revisions to a paper, and this will far outweigh any flaws they might perceive in the earliest draft. Finally, while it may be true that today, hiring is dominated by people who grew up without the internet, and are willing to cast dispersions at applicants for the slightest flaw online, very soon, this hiring will be turned over to people who have grown up with the internet, and understand that, just like in real life, we all have blemishes. At that time, my guess is, that when we get to this point, the person doing the hiring will be just a bit more humane and forgiving of that typo-ridden first draft. But truly, even today, it isn’t the blog some student maintains of his or her academic papers that will land him or her in trouble when it comes for applying for a job. It’s the things that he/she posts to public forums and social media sites that reveal serious lapses in character and judgment, like a racist joke on a blog comment. This is all the more reason for why we should be educating students about these tools, and having them practice their use as part of their school lives, where we can teach responsible use, and give students powerful examples of how these tools can be used for good purposes.

Finally, I strongly believe that the world is a far more forgiving place than we give it credit for. Certainly, I’ve found this to be the case personally—in all the blog posts I’ve written, and mistakes I’ve made here, I still think I’ve managed to earn quite a bit of respect and credibility for my ideas. And if you look through the media at almost any disgraced celebrity or athlete, you realize it doesn’t take too long for the public to forgive and forget, and watch as that person returns back to his or her previous status—just a few days ago, Tiger Woods Signed a new endorsement with Rolex, and Martha Stewart is back on top of her media empire (And to be clear, I think the mistakes made by both of these individuals are far more significant and worthy of punishment than a poorly written English paper). But if you think such treatment is reserved for celebrities, I’d like to close with just one more example. Last week, a Google engineer named Steve Yeggee wrote a 4600 word screed attacking his employer, Google, Google+, and his former employer Amazon and Jeff Bezeos. And, in a pretty big mistake, Steve posted this to his public Google+ page. This posting got picked up by Hacker News, which is read by just about everyone who knows anything in technology and it became a smash hit. So what happens to the guy who works for Google and then publicly attacks his employer in front of everyone in Silicon Valley? Steve was kind enough to make a second post a week later, giving us an update. Here’s what he said happened:

Amazingly, nothing bad happened to me at Google. Everyone just laughed at me a lot, all the way up to the top, for having committed what must be the great-granddaddy of all Reply-All screwups in tech history.

But they also listened, which is super cool. I probably shouldn’t talk much about it, but they’re already figuring out how to deal with some of the issues I raised. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though. When I claimed in my internal post that “Google does everything right”, I meant it. When they’re faced with any problem at all, whether it’s technical or organizational or cultural, they set out to solve it in a first-class way.

Here’s the message of the story I want all of my students to learn. The world is a forgiving place, and it’s ok to make mistakes. In fact, it’s more than ok, it’s expected that if you really care about what you are doing, you’re going to make mistakes. If you’ve got the courage to make those mistakes publicly, you’ll figure out they’re much less painful than you thought, and there are people out there who are eager to help you get back up and propel you onward with help you never imagined possible. So what are you waiting for?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2011 8:24 am

    This is a lovely piece on the importance of mistakes. I especially appreciate how important it is that we teachers understand this difference:
    1) the “slipping on a banana peel, making a video of it, posting it, and having people laugh” type of mistake
    2) the “I don’t understand how X influences Y, and I’m going to make an (incorrect) guess about it, and then I’m going to ask for feedback” type. (Or, perhaps, “Here’s an example of my writing, please give your honest opinions” – not a mistake per se, but related)

    And I agree that the type-2 mistakes, even if they’re out there on the internet, should never work against a person (i.e., in job interviews or college applications). If we can’t use the internet to help each other learn, then what’s the point of the thing?


  2. October 26, 2011 2:22 pm

    …yeah, the feedback’s great! I think that even the feedback from others in the class is at a much higher level than when they do it live, possibly because they get some time to actually think about it, which doesn’t usually really happen in class.

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