Friday, May 31, 2013

Why we should teach them to be wrong: Embracing amateurism in the first year of college

. . . the rewards and refreshments of thought and the arts come from the courage to try something, all sorts of things, for the first time.  These first-time adventures are the spice of life. An enamored amateur need not be a genius to stay out of ruts he has never been trained in."    -Daniel Boorstin, "The Amateur Spirit"
At the advice of a recent TED Talk speaker, I have toyed around with the practice of comparative reading, which is just an academic's term for reading two books in tandem and then drawing connections and comparisons across the two of them.  It's not an earth-shattering idea and most good readers (particularly those who read a lot) do this naturally across the books they read.  That said, my recent efforts to consciously consider  the interconnectedness of two books I have been reading (Spark: How creativity works and Being Wrong: Adventures in the margin of error) has been really useful.  

In the foreward to Spark, +Kurt Andersen  (the host of Studio 360) describes how embracing an "amateur spirit" has enabled him to take on projects he wasn't "qualified" for, reject the fear of failure, and take the risks necessary to be a truly creative person. In the remainder of the book, +Julie Burstein shares a series of stories from the lives of various creative artists and thinkers that illustrate how important this "amateurism" is for creative people.  In Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz argues for the value of the experience of "being wrong" in our lives in terms of both learning and aesthetics.  Essentially, her message is that we are wrong about being wrong.  Rather than being a sign of inferiority, evidence of ineptitude, or something to be ashamed of, being wrong is tied to our ability to feel empathy, think creatively, and be optimistic.  Ultimately, being wrong is what positions us to learn and change.

Andersen's ideas about being an amateur and Schulz' thoughts about error seem intricately linked.  What's more, the interweaving of these two ideas has huge implications for the way institutions engage first-year students.  New college students display the cardinal signs of error aversion:  when mistakes happen they ignore them, deny them, pretend they don't care, or most commonly blame someone else (particularly roommates and faculty members. I even heard a story last week in which a student had blamed missing an exam on his bed--and he was deadly serious when he offered up this explanation.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I heard it).  While this resistance to admitting error or the need for improvement can be frustrating for those of us who work with students, of more importance is the impact this attitude has on learning.  A student who can't be wrong, can't try new things, accept feedback, change plans, or break bad study habits.  So, as much as we would like for students to "be right," we would be wise to shelf that desire in exchange for an effort to help students embrace the curious, excited, and even reckless spirit that comes from the feeling that one is an amateur, which means being wrong early, often, and in spectacular ways.  Students who adopt this mindset will approach their experience on our campuses in wholly new ways.   

Fully acknowledging the reality that any or all of the thoughts in this post are likely to be wrong, here are a few concrete ways institutions can structure the first-year experience to help students fully embrace amateurism:

1.  Ask for stories of being wrong in the admissions process. Whether it is in application essays or on-campus interviews, applicants should be asked to tell and make meaning of their own stories of being wrong.  These stories are likely to be helpful in both evaluating emotional maturity, humility, and openness to learning, the mere act of asking for these stories implies to applicants that "at State U. we value and learn from our mistakes."  Students aren't likely to pick up on this message initially, but it will be one of the threads that will eventually come together to help them understand that the very best learners are those who have been wrong, a lot.

2.  Make stories of risk, error, and uncertainty a prominent part of New Student Orientation.  Orientation speakers could tell stories (particularly from their own first year of college) that highlight the inevitability, value, and even joy of being wrong.  Similarly, peer orientation leaders are positioned to make a tremendous impression upon new students by sharing similar narratives of how taking appropriate risks and seeking challenges have enhanced their college experience.  

3.  Make risk and failure inevitable by building challenging courses into a required first-year curriculum.  Occasionally, students avoid the danger of being wrong by making strategic registration decisions (e.g. a full schedule of PE, art, and pass/fail student leadership courses).  In these cases, students do not become accustomed the rigors of challenging academic work and are eventually blindsided by difficult courses they put off until their second, third, or fourth semester.  By requiring, for instance, a challenging first-year writing course that involves heavy doses of feedback, institutions can quickly acclimate students to a culture of learning from mistakes and embracing vulnerability.

4.  Provide highly visible and accessible support through campus resources, particularly peer leaders.  Challenging students and having high expectations is fine, so long as support systems are in place for students who struggle (which is hopefully all of them to some extent or another).  Help labs, counseling centers, library support, writing centers, etc. should not only be available, but be integrated into first-year coursework so that they become a natural and inevitable part of the student experience.  Peer leaders (e.g. peer mentors in first-year seminars, peer advisors, resident assistants, etc.) can serve a valuable role by connecting students with these resources as well as engaging them in dialogue about their "failures" and "mistakes."  These conversations might be more powerful than anything else that might happen during a student's experience.  While faculty members and professional advisors can serve a similar role, there is a power in peer conversations for promoting reflection and change.

5.  Make institutional mistakes public and model how to be wrong in graceful, growth-promoting ways.  This final point isn't just relevant for first-year students, but for an institution's messaging for any member of the campus community.  When mistakes are made, institutions are presented with a priceless opportunity to demonstrate the value of this kind of experience by being transparent, learning from the miscue, and celebrating those who fully engage in this process and the improvements that result.  This doesn't mean being reckless and apathetic, but honestly recognizing shortcomings and then working (very publicly) to change.  Additionally, taking on a spirit of amateurism by experimenting with innovations and piloting new initiatives, even when it means risking "failure" and critique, shows students that being in a learning community means going out on a limb at times.

It's a bit ironic that much of what we do on college campuses is aimed at developing expertise (thereby extinguishing amateurism) and eliminating error (think of the last study from the hard sciences you read, particularly the methods section).  If we're really about learning and growing, we might be better off if we were wrong a little more often and allowed ourselves to be amateurs again.


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