I feel compelled to add more to my blog post of last week about failure, in part because soon after I posted it I thought of some other failures from which I hadn’t learned quite so much. For example: at my most recent tae kwon do test (they come up about every three months), I was almost unable to break any boards, and I also had trouble remembering my patterns or forms, the sequences of moves that we learn at each belt level. Board breaks are a particular issue for me: some days my boards break the first time I hit (or kick) them; other times it takes me several tries, and other times I simply can’t do it at all. I still have a bruise on my right knee from trying to break a board with it and failing (it only hurts when you fail). Obviously I’m not a complete failure at tae kwon do: I have a black belt, I can teach folks some of the easier patterns, and I usually progress right on schedule. But at my most recent test something was off — and, as I don’t quite know what it was, I’m having trouble remedying the problem.
Here’s where I think this relates to my teaching. My students can only learn from their failures if they understand them. If, however, both their successes and their failures are mysterious to them—as my board breaks or failures to break are to me—then there’s little opportunity for learning. Rather, we (because here I think I am quite like my students) just chalk it up to a good or a bad day and move on.
Obviously I want to help my students to understand both their successes and their failures, and here’s where learning to write is different from learning to break boards. Board breaking is a demonstration skill—as a colleague says, “boards don’t hit back,” so it’s not really an essential part of any martial art. It’s just a way to demonstrate focus, energy, and strength. Writing, however, is an essential college (and beyond) skill. So it’s incumbent on me to help my students understand why their essays work, when they do, and why they don’t, when they don’t. Going over drafts and graded essays in conferences is a part of this, as is repetition—just writing, a lot, can teach you a lot about what works and what doesn’t. (No doubt this would work with board breaking, too—but that would be pretty wasteful. What do you do with all those broken boards, anyway?)
I was able to diagnose my failed cake fairly quickly because I have a lot of experience as a baker—and as an eater. So in order for my students to learn to write better, I need to help them get more experience as writers and readers, to help them improve their diagnostic skills. It’s a long process, and I think it will take more than one semester. Good thing they’re starting early.