Several years ago I heard a radio program on the TED radio hour about failure. I won’t share too many details because they did a better job than I could and I encourage everyone to listen to it (Failure Is An Option). I am not hoping that anyone fails, only that everyone is willing to. The greater the risk the greater the reward? Most of us have heard some rendition of the Thomas Edison quote regarding the invention of the light bulb (with varying numbers of failures):
I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.
When I first started my digital electronics class in college, the professor told us that there were two types of people when it came to the work in the class: WHEN something didn’t work one type will get frustrated, tear everything out and try to start again. The second will clap their hands together and enthusiastically say “oh, good, let’s get to work figuring it out.” I was definitely the latter, and since then it has been one of my most basic instructions to people exploring new (to them) technology. My new mantra is that it is not about getting it right, but rather being willing to get it wrong and try again.
When I was working on my master’s project, one of the ideas I had was to create some type of system to help self-evaluate someone’s level of knowledge and expertise with regard to various areas of music technology. I very quickly realized that I had trouble coming up with good questions – particularly ones that could be machine graded. The problem was less about what someone knew and more about what they understood. Particularly in technology learning, there is usually more than one solution and the only constant is that things will change. Rote learning can only get you so far.
In my first teaching assignment (at a community college), most of the student grade was based simply on completion of assignments. Those assignments were primarily blog participation and assigned weekly presentations by the students. The presentations were rather informal as the goal was to improve their communication skills while demonstrating their understanding of the topic. They ended up being essentially a chance for one-on-one tutoring that everyone shared. I found that I could get a better feeling for a student’s grasp of a subject by listening to the questions they asked rather than the answers I asked them to provide. There were plenty of times that my answer to their question was “well, I’m not sure, let’s try it and find out.”
Sometimes my method was a bit of a hard sell. It was in rather stark contrast to a colleague who was reportedly very structured and had been teaching his classes for quite some time. I felt it was important the students saw that I didn’t have all the answers – but I was confident we could find out together. I firmly believed that it was as much my job to teach them how to learn as supplying them with facts (most of which they could look up). I have also realized that a very large proportion of music technology is, in reality, doing things for the first time and troubleshooting when it goes unexpectedly (notice I didn’t use the word “wrong”). One of the great joys in technology is the happy accident. So don’t be afraid of failure. Risk that you might do it wrong. Be willing to take a couple unintended side-trips on your journey. Trust that you will find an answer. Lesson #2: Search for your answer before you ask. It has usually been asked, answered, and discussed before and probably in ways you hadn’t thought of… “But,” as Alton Brown says, “That’s another show.”