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We’ve all had projects that have flopped, but how do we transition out of that failure into something meaningful? Andrew joins Tim on the show as they discuss the need to figure out how to make those failures relevant. They also talk about salvaging learning experiences for our students when things aren’t running as smoothly as we had hoped. Tim provides tips on using reflection and discussion as a learning experience (3:00). Andrew shares his ideas about what causes our projects to fail (7:00) and why he purposefully designs projects that force students to struggle (11:45). This episode has great suggestions for trying new projects in your classroom, saving lessons that go awry, and even using those lessons to teach our kids about failure. Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. As much as we want to be the perfect teacher, or as much as we think we are the perfect teacher, there are still those time when our projects, our presentations and our lessons fail, sometimes miserably. It’s at that point, when our plans are out the window, that we need to be at our best. We need to figure out how to make those failures relevant and how to salvage a learning experience for our students when things aren’t running as smoothly as we had hoped. When do we stick it out and when do we see it through to the end? What do we do when we are forced to teach on the fly, the man, the myth, the legend Andrew McCormick will join me in a little while to talk about some of his most spectacular failures and exactly how we cope when our best laid plans go bad.
Before we jump into the episode today I want to tell you a little bit about this summer slate of classes offered by the Art of Education, all of which you can find on theartofed.com/courses. Every course is offered every single month this summer on topics from curriculum design to classroom management, to assessment, even studio classes. Now those studio classes are my absolute favorite to teach, if you want to work with me I’ll be teaching studio ceramics in June and the brand new studio painting class in July. No matter what class you want though, get registered soon, all the classes start on the first of the month so you have about a week to go. Again go to theartofed.com/courses to see what course might work you and get signed up today.
Now, we’ve all had a project or perhaps multiple projects that have failed, and sometimes failed miserably. Picture this, you start with a project that you’ve done a dozen times before. This is something that you’re used to working with, and every time you have done this project it’s been a success. This the way you’ve always done it, everything should go off without a hitch but for whatever reason the lesson this time is an absolute disaster. Kids aren’t engaged, the outcomes aren’t what you’re looking for. You know there aren’t going to be good results and you’re not even sure if there’s learning going on. What do you do as a teacher at that point? What do you do when your best laid plans go bad? When do you know if it is time to get rid of that project.
A stubborn part of me used to think that I needed to see every project through to the end. I’d be improvising different things, trying to salvage a project with little patches that were never going to work. I’ve learned since then though that it really is okay to get rid of something that isn’t working. Think about it this way, are you better teaching on the fly, improvising and trying to save a lots cause? Are you better scraping something, reflecting on what you’ve learned and moving on to the next great thing. Let’s talk about that reflection piece though, because I think that’s key. How do we take advantage of when the failure becomes a learning opportunity? I think being able to reflect on that is a huge part of the process, and you need to share that process with your students, every art of it, every bit of that less. If the lesson failed because of a mistake or some mistakes that you made, don’t be afraid to share that with your kids. Confess to that, let them know what’s going on.
But on the other side, if you don’t know why it failed don’t be afraid to share that with your kids either. Sometimes it’s all right to not be the expert and sometimes it’s all right to have kids help you figure out where things went wrong. I think the biggest takeaway from that is that we can let kids know that failure is part of that artistic process. We can talk about what they can learn from that failure. From there you can get your student’s input. Ask them what they think should happen next and listen to them, really listen. They can be an important part of the process as well. That process of student input is actually one thing that I do want to talk to Andrew about. Let’s go ahead and bring him on. We’ll talk a little bit about projects that fail, when you want to ditch them and how to create a more viable learning environment out of that situation. We’ll go ahead and bring him on right now. Hey Andrew how are?
Andrew: Hey Tim, I’m doing good man, how are you doing?
Tim: I am doing really well. We’re going to talk tonight about projects that fail miserably and how you can turn those around, what you can with those things. I’ll start off with this one for you, what would you say are the percentage of the projects that you present that are complete and utter failures?
Andrew: Man, if we’re talking failures I feel like you’ve come to the right guy. I’m the expert of failing. Seriously, I’ve been teaching for a long time in semester, every day … I think that’s something to think about too. Are we elementary teachers and it’s on cycle or semesters? I’ve been doing semesters for a long time and I always feel like I get between 7 and 9 projects done, 7 or 9 big lessons. I always tell kids, “We’re going to have one where it’s dynamite and everyone loves their work and everyone takes it home. ‘I’m so happy’, and then there’s always going to be one that is a dog, an absolute failure and you’re going to want to take it home, you’re going to want to burn it, you’re going to want to forget everything about it.” What is that? 1 out of 8?
Andrew: That really does feel like that’s what it is for me. I’ve come to expect and I feel like if I don’t have one of those, I didn’t try enough new things. If I have too many of those I’m doing something wrong and I need to reconsider. But yeah, I’d say 1 per every 8, it’s about my average.
Tim: Yeah, so that brings up a couple of things I think because back when I was teaching elementary school, you really don’t mind a project flopping because you’re probably going to teach it 6 or 7 more times, right?
Tim: You have so many more kids coming in, you can always fine tune, you can always adjust things. But if this is your only section of ceramics and that flops, or this is your only painting class and it flops, it makes it a little bit more stressful. Going through, if you do have one of those projects that absolutely fails and you’re like, “Okay guys, this had been fun. Critique was great, recycling bin’s right there,” you’re probably trying something new. Do you think that most of those failures come from that sense of adventure or that sense of trying something new? Are there some other reasons or other causes that make those projects fail?
Andrew: Without a doubt it’s never another reason, it’s always just that it’s something new. I’ve never done a project that flopped that I was less scratching my head, where I said, “Boy, that worked the last year really well, I wonder what happened?” It’s always, “We’re going to try this new thing I’ve been thinking about,” and you don’t think of X, Y or Z, the paper weight or the materials or the this or the that. You misjudge how long or short something’s going to take. It’s always for me because I’m trying something new, and to be honest I think that’s actually really, really important. I think that’s when my kids, they see me, the teacher, nervously excited and I tell them, “Guys I’ve never done one of these before.”
For example I just did a 4 color linoleum print and I was like, “Okay guys, in theory I know how this work. I’ve done a 2 color, but I’ve never done a 4 color. We’re going to try it!” I think that they like that challenge and I try to frame it that way like, “You’re the group that I really think I want to test this out on because I think you guys can handle it.” They like it and they know sometimes if it … I think the way that that works so well is when I frame it that way and I’m upfront with them. I’m like, “This is totally new,” then when there is a student who’s like, “Man, I am horrible at this,” they don’t blame themselves, they blame me. I’ve got thick enough skin, broad enough shoulders, I can handle, that’s fine. I think that that’s always worked really, just be upfront and honest with them when you’re trying something new.
Tim: Yeah, and for me I’ve always found that kids love being the guinea pig. Like you said, you can just tell them, “Hey guys, I’ve never taught this lesson before, this is something new I want to try and I think you are the class to do it.” Then they get this huge sense of themselves and feel like they’re really important, and they’re really into whatever you’re going to be trying. I want to circle around to something else you said, if you’re just trying this in front of your class for the first time here’s my question, I always try things on my own before I present them to a class, do you think teachers have a responsibility to go through that so they can present the correct way to do that, or do you think it’s good for teachers to try and possible fail in front of their kids, having never done that before?
Andrew: There’s a lot of different ways to take this, because I remember being a new teacher, I would take artwork home and I would practice it and I would prep it and I would get all of my examples, my demos, all the way done, all of them every step of the way. You start having a family and you’ve got kids and commitments, it’s like, “I’m winging this,” and colored pencils and denatured alcohol, “I think this will work.” You just try to see if it works. Some of it’s just the logistics of time, sometimes it’s hard to test everything and you take your best guess.
But, and maybe I’m just rationalizing my own failures and making it okay for myself, but I do think sometimes it’s nice for your students to see you fail and adapt and be like, “I’m going to scrap this and I’m going to do it this way,” and make it work and pivot and make an artwork better given the failures that kind of worked into it. Sometimes your students are going to call you out on your BS, they’re like, “You’re just trying to make me feel better that all this didn’t turn out well.” But sometimes I’m like, “No, the way that that didn’t quite work exactly how we thought, it’s actually cooler now, it looks worn or retro or vintage. That’s cool, right?” They’re like, “Yeah, it’s all right.”
I recently had a project that went like that, something didn’t quite work like I wanted. We had to switch it up a little bit and I talk to students about making it work, like, “Okay, you thought this was going to happen. The way that the rubber cement and the paint didn’t quite cover it up, now we’ve got to make what we have work,” and I actually think that that piece of adaptability is really, really important. I don’t know if we should intentionally design projects that are going to fail and fizzle out on our kids, but at the same time it’s not the worst thing in the world when it does happen.
Tim: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think that problem solving that comes with adapting really is a valuable lesson. I think that’s a good point, do we want to set our kids up for failure to teach them that lesson? I personally would shy away from that but I think it’s something to think about. I think it’s something to consider.
Andrew: On that note, there’s some language written out there for partnership for the 21st century, it’s like flexibility and adaptability. I’ve actually designed a couple projects, I don’t do this as much with my younger students, where I deliberately have a day where it’s like, “And now you’re going to spill paint on purpose over half of your artwork,” and then I make them deal with problems. It’s like, “You thought you were doing this and now you’re this.” Sometimes I liken it to the phrase, “You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.” They have to deal with it.
Now I received enough eyeball daggers from students who were so ticked at me that I gave them this curve ball that they had to deal with, that I’ve kind of shied away from it, but every once in a while I’ll bring that out, a project that deliberately has a weird curve ball in it that they have to deal with.
Tim: Yeah, I like that idea. I don’t know, I feel like that’s really setting your kids up to hate you a little bit though.
Andrew: I can handle it man. I totally can handle it, I’m a big boy.
Tim: “But you guys are learning.”
Andrew: No the funny thing is, they don’t like it at first. You’d be amazed, I’m always amazed, a couple days later they’re like, “Man I’m really glad we had to sand away this,” or, “cover half of it with paint this.” Sometimes I’ll do this thing where I make them for 30 minutes give their artwork to another student in class and then it’s like, “Okay, now the other person gets to draw on your drawing.” They’re like really upset but it kind of loosens them up. Something I’ve been talking a lot with my colleague this last year about is, teaching students to be a little less precious with their artwork, it’s really forced them to think about the process versus the product. Okay, when things back fire, everything doesn’t have to be perfect. Maybe it’s better now that it went through some different iterations.
Tim: Yeah. Okay, let’s look at that this way, if or when that happens and you start to make kids think about, “Why did this happen? What part of the process am I in? Where can I go from here?” When that happens and it’s an unplanned failure, how do you turn that into something salvageable? How do you know when to go through that reflection process and try and turn it into something better, or how do you when to ditch it? Say, “You know what? We’re done with this. We have failed. Let’s move on.”
Andrew: You know I think I said this on a couple episodes ago, how teaching’s like being a comedian. It’s like knowing your audience and know what they can take and know what they’ll find funny. You know your students and you know that look on their face where they’re almost ready to cry out of exacerbation. They’re so done with this. I’m like, “Okay fine, you can be done with it. That’s fine. We can call this a failure, you can recycle it, you can burn it, throw it away. Let’s move on.” Then there’s that look on their face where they’re like, “This wasn’t … ” Like, keep going. Like, change it up, learn from it.
You kind of know, and I feel like if you don’t know you probably don’t know your kids well enough. I have adopted the attitude, I’m totally fine with a kid scraping a project if it’s a complete dog. Show me another way that they’ve learned something, or maybe I tell them like, “Listen, you don’t have to take this out to its logical ending point because it is not going to be good. I’ll give you a grade on the process that I saw and I saw you learning but we don’t need to drag this out any longer.”
Tim: Yeah, I’m the same way with that where a kid will come up to me like, “This is not going how I want it to,” and I always turn that back around on them, like, “Is it worth finishing?” They can make that decision. If they decide it’s not worth finishing, what can they do to show me that they’ve learned these concepts, or what would you like to do instead to show what you’ve done, show what you’ve learned. If a kid decides to ditch things, what do you talk to them about when they are moving on to that next thing? What lessons do you want them to learn from that failure?
Andrew: Sometimes it’s project specific. It’s like, “Hey remember when I said you can’t make clay and put a ton of water in the bottom where it’s going to fall apart, and then it fell apart because you didn’t listen? You should probably listen to me next time.” Some of it is just structural, or it’s specific to the project. Sometimes it’s like, “Hey, you should have taken a little bit more time at the beginning to come up with a better idea.” I have a couple phrases that I tell my kids, and these may not be safe for work or safe for home. Sometimes I tell them, “You can shine a turd.” If it’s not good from the beginning don’t try to make it any better. Sometimes it goes back to that original idea, maybe that needs to be better right off the get-go.
Tim: Yeah, and sometimes I think … I don’t know if I’d go with the, “Shine a turd,” phrasing but you can talk to kids about why things aren’t working and make them reflect of how they’ve gotten to that point. But then I guess if we transition that into what you do as a teacher, if you have one of those lessons that has failed, your kids’ projects are failing as well, what do you look at? How do you reflect on your lesson? How do you look at what you can do to change things, what you can do to make things more meaningful? Do you try and change up what you’re doing or do you generally just say, “I’m scrapping that project?”
Andrew: I think it depends on the degree of failure. You know as an artist if it’s like, “Okay, I was really close but not quite right,” it’s the with as a teacher. It’s like, “Okay, that project was close to totally hitting it and being successful but maybe I did some things procedural-wise and material-wise, that if I tightened those up it’d be a little better.” A friend of mine once told me that you should make artwork like you think you’re a rock star, but then look at it afterwards and critiquing it like you’re complete crap. There’s this notion of being really honest and frank and critical with yourself. Don’t sugar coat it, if it didn’t work out really don’t take it personal but look at it and say, “Why didn’t this work well?”
The thing that’s really worked for me is I have a colleague that I trust very much and it’s like, “Hey why isn’t this working as well as I think it should?” She’ll give it to me, she’ll say, “Listen you shouldn’t have done that,” or, “You’re trying to do too much,” that’s often my go-to mistake as I’m trying to get the kids to do too much stuff, if I would have just scaled back they probably would have had more success. I think adding a person into the collaborative reflective mix is definitely a good thing to do.
Tim: Yeah, I’ll agree with that completely. Also one other point, that honest thing works for any discussion you have when you’re reflecting on things, whether it’s critiques with the kids or talking to your colleagues or whatever. A lot of my kids think I’m too harsh but I’m like, “I’m just being honest about what’s going on here.” It’s helpful if you’re direct, you don’t beat around the bush you talk about what needs to change, what needs to be different. One last question before I let you get out of here. As you’re doing that reflection piece on your lesson, do you ever bring kids into that discussion? Do you want to show them like, “Hey this is why we failed, this is what I want to do differently? What do you guys think we can do differently?” Do you think that teaching about those failures, or discussing those failures with the projects is worthwhile? Is it good to bring kids into that discussion to teach them that lesson as well?
Andrew: Totally. One of the things I enjoy on the opposite end of the spectrum of critiquing your assignments and your works and your lessons, I’ll let kids brainstorm with me like, “What do we want to do next? What haven’t we done?” If I love doing that I better enjoy doing the backend of it too, and I do. The thing that I do quite a bit is at the end of this semester I’ll ask kids, we’ll talk. What project was the best? Which one did we like the most? What was really clicking? What work did you do that was most meaningful, or the best? Then which one was that dog?
Sometimes can pick and what I think was the dog or the worst one they also agree, and then sometimes I’m shocked. I have this one project, it’s like they’re stabbing me in the heart every year when they’re like, “My least favorite project was old timey mythology,” that’s what I call it. I’m like, “No! I love that project. It’s cross-disciplinary and it’s got social studies and research and drawing.” Like, “Yeah, it’s boring.” Somehow I need to take their criticism and feedback and I need to revamp that one. I actually didn’t do it this last semester because I’m like, “All right, the people have spoken I won’t do that one then I guess.”
Tim: All right, fair enough. I’m glad to hear you’re receptive about those things.
Andrew: I am receptive, but I go home at night and cry a little bit when they break my heart like that.
Tim: All right, I’m going to leave alone so you can go home and cry right now.
Andrew: I will.
Tim: We’ll wrap it up there. Thanks for joining me tonight Andrew.
Andrew: Thanks Tim, we’ll see you later.
Tim: Bye. All right, a big thanks to Andrew McCormick for coming and sharing with us about some of his failures and how we learn from some of those failures. I want to ask, what do you do when your best lain plans go bad? Whether you decide to stick it out or whether you drop the project by the wayside, make sure that you keep in mind the learning that’s happening with your kids. That learning might take the form of some reflection on the current project, some changes moving forward, or it might take the form of a class trip to the recycling bin and a new project starting the next day.
If something has flopped and you know you weren’t going to salvage it, quit digging that hole. Improvisation and your short term solutions aren’t good for your students because you’re not at your best as a teacher. Don’t be afraid to cut your losses. Mark it down as a learning opportunity, take advantage of that learning opportunity, and then move on to the next. It’s okay to fail and it’s okay to embrace your failure. Don’t be afraid to admit when your plans have gone bad because the sooner you can do that the sooner you can learn through reflection and move on to something even bigger and even better.
Art Ed Radio was developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Please subscribe to Art Ed Radio on iTunes or your favorite podcast app and convince all your friends to do the same thing. All those recommendations help new listeners find our show, which we always appreciate. You can find us at artedradio.com where new episodes are released every Tuesday. We’ll see you then.
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.