Schooling Magazine

Playful Fearlessness

By Stevemiranda

Here’s an excerpt from an essay by author and consultant Matthew May:

And if you think about it, our most intensive learning period, from birth to about five years old, features failure upon failure: learning to sit up, crawl, walk, talk . . . everything is an experiment. Nothing happens right the first time, and what we now call failure was not at that time thought of or labeled as failure. Instead, it was a continuous cycle of learning and progressing and improving—a natural part of growing up.

We only talk about failure because of the prevailing emotion it evokes: fear. So where did that fear come from? It wasn’t there when we were toddling about, coming to grips with the world. Where did our playful fearlessness and childlike curiosity go?

It disappeared at the hands of our institutional education as we grew up. The first phase of problem-solving—questioning—got replaced by another activity: answering. Learning became not about creating new knowledge, but about acquiring existing knowledge. Teachers asked the questions, and we had to answer correctly. There was a right and wrong answer, and a grade called “F,” for failure, became prominently placed on our report card, and along with it came the fear factor. Unfortunately, the focus on answering transferred over to the workplace, where the focus became getting the right answer for the boss. And failure was not an option if we wanted to advance our career.

* * *

I wrote earlier this week about my trip to California to visit a former student. Part of my trip included giving a 3-minute speech at a luncheon featuring students and faculty that represent, literally, some of the most extraordinary minds in the world.

At first I recoiled. I don’t much enjoy giving speeches, unless I’m sharing my belief that the industrial model of education needs to be put to rest. But I did some reflection and reminded myself that learning to be effective at speaking extemporaneously can be really useful. I used this as an opportunity to practice public speaking.

My 3-minute speech was pretty terrible—I think I cut it off after about 30 seconds—but I view the experience as a success. It helped me gather more data on what it feels like to face my fear, what it feels like to stand in front of a group, and get a better sense of what not to do next time.

* * *

I’m 38 years old. I’ve developed a pretty strong sense of self, and failing in public is something I’m prepared to do if it means I can learn something important. But for teenagers, who are at a tender developmental stage and typically more concerned with social acceptance than facing their fear in public, it’s different.

Profound learning happens best when people are outside their comfort zones. For example, consider how uncomfortable toddlers are when they’re learning to walk; nobody likes falling down over and over! But the thrill of learning is worth it. The parents’ job isn’t to teach their child to walk, it’s to create a safe environment and then let the child experiment and fail, experiment and fail, until she finally gets it.


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