Monday, July 26, 2010

Teaching: The Art of Allowing Failure

Horses are some of the best teachers. They seem to have an innate ability to understand what it takes to learn.

Way back when, I had a teacher (of the human persuasion) who was enamored of that well know, oft used phrase attributed to Vince Lombardi: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."

Wow. I challenge you to think of a better way to discourage anyone from trying to improve. He certainly scared the desire right out of me at the time.

When I defied his particular lack of inspiration and became a teacher I noticed a couple of things right off the bat (pardon the almost-pun). One, people learn when they're actually ready for the information, and two, I learned more from my students than they did from me--neither are unusual epiphanies.

Then one day I noticed something else. My students' horses consistently provided the lesson plan. Not only did each horse perform to the exact level of the rider, but they did exactly the things wrong that were my students key issues. Bless their hearts, they were showing me what needed to be taught.

But could I teach it? Sure I could talk my students through the steps to correct the problems, but that's not teaching. The real question was, could I impart an understanding of the process well enough for them to handle it on their own when they practiced between lessons?

And right about here is where that old saying falls flat on its pompous tutu.

Pretending to be perfect, so one can practice perfect generally ends up with the grand delusion disintegrating into a million depressing pieces. One needs to know as clearly as possible what the goal is, sure, but to get there one must seek out the problems and be determined to fail as many times as it takes in order to get it right. When I see a student let go of their insistence to avoid failure and accept and embrace that fact, progress follows. Always. And each time I've seen one of my students make a little progress I've seen their horses respond precisely to that improvement, even when it's serendipitous. Their consistent, accurate feedback makes horses wonderful teachers. And there's rarely one that won't generously allow his rider to make mistakes over and over in their quest to get it right. My job, as the human side of the teaching team, is to prevent mistakes from being too grievous and set up the goals. Then I must make sure my student understands it's okay to try and fail repeatedly. If I can do that, the horse can do his job. And he will. Every time. No matter how long it takes.

It's unflagging patience, accurate feedback and forgiveness of failure that are qualities the best teachers share. Horses have it in spades.


  1. Susan-How true. Perfection is too intimidating of a concept. Once you're ready to fail/look foolish/ask questions/try again you open yourself up to success.

    Great post!

  2. I tell performers, and try to remember it myself when I'm playing a solo, that there is no such thing as a perfect performance. There never has been one and never will be. I really believe it's true, too. We're all human!