The Truth That No One Wants to Admit: A Reflection on Making Mistakes in Experiential Learning

Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Mnonja, 2010

Have you ever accidentally brushed the surface of that painting at the world-class museum? Or gotten too close for comfort and gotten told-off by the guard? Or set off an alarm as you hurriedly backed away trying to act like it wasn’t you who had touched the glass case?

I’ve told my students a hundred times how to correctly position themselves to avoid contact with the artwork we’re studying. I’ve developed and practiced strategies with them before our trips to encourage a safe-viewing-distance. And, to be clear, Live It Learn It does not ever endorse people touching paintings. Our students are more prepared and careful than any other students I’ve ever seen at museums. But in the end, and this is the bit that museums don’t tell you:

Mistakes. Happen.

Visitors accidentally bump the wall and cause paintings to shiver. Children accidentally climb the staircase that’s really a contemporary sculptural piece. People accidentally touch the paintings.

But the important thing is that now they know not to. They know how to avoid the walls or decipher if pieces are sculptural or structural. By making mistakes you learn how to engage in new spaces and with new tools. It’s our job as teachers to help turn these mistakes into learning opportunities.Students Make Mistakes

Over 60% of Live It Learn It students are visiting our site destinations for the first time. That means that they might not have had the opportunity to make mistakes while in the guidance of their parents. Many times our students have never seen what museum behavior looks like and they might accidentally run instead of walk, or stand on the left side of the moving walkway instead of the right.

Because students of color in DC deserve equal access to the cultural institutions of this city, they need to know that they are always welcome at our national landmarks. One time I asked my students why we shouldn’t touch artwork, expecting that they would explain how it might damage the piece. One student responded, “Because we’ll get kicked out,” to which the rest of the students nodded vigorously in agreement. Our students deserve to be comfortable in DC’s cultural institutions. They should know that they will have the benefit of the doubt that their mistakes are not intentional and that they are allowed to learn from their mistakes in order to become better museum-goers.

Teachers Make Mistakes

It’s important for teachers to make mistakes too. When we learn what doesn’t work for our students, it gets us closer to what will. One time, thinking I would solve the problem of students getting too close to paintings while reading their placards, I showed students what a safe distance looked like. “About three feet!” I told students, following up by showing them what three feet looked like by pacing and pointing out the distance on the floor that I had traveled. Surely enough, once we arrived in the galleries, all of my considerate and careful students were stepping all the way up, face-to-face, with the paintings, and pacing backwards three steps to make sure they were far enough away. Major face-palm.

Guess what I learned that day? I learned that fourth graders struggle with conceptualizing space without a visual. I learned that students will copy exactly what I model. I learned to joke with my students about what would happen if you stepped up face-to-face with a painting (“Yeah! You might touch it!”).

Anticipating and Allowing Mistakes

Mistakes are expected during student-driven experiences and project-based learning. The Association for Experiential Education asserts: “The instructor and student may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of the experience cannot totally be predicted.” Because of this uncertainty, it’s the lessons learned throughout the journey that are the real teaching moments. If you had never set off that alarm, you would have never have known not to touch the glass.

It’s our job as teachers not to eliminate the risk, but to minimize the risk and create a safe space where mistakes are allowed and growth from mistakes is encouraged. Minimizing the risk is what sets ordinary field trips apart from stellar field trips. It’s practicing safe-viewing distance techniques in the classroom before leaving. It’s modeling the act of walking in the middle of the room so as not to brush the paintings on the wall with your shoulders or clipboard.

And it’s why we carefully map out the route we take through museums before running Live It Learn It trips. And we always stick to the route… almost always.

Towards the end of one 4th grade field trip to the National Portrait Gallery, our students were engaged and thoughtful, but also getting hungry and fidgety. It was time to head out, but we wanted to make sure that they got to see the Alexander Calder, and Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway, oh and they really couldn’t miss Mickalene Thomas’ fabulous Portrait of Mnonja. So we took them on a quick detour through the East Wing of the American Art Museum and took a short-cut that we had never tested in order to get to the bus more quickly.

Big mistake.As soon as we exited our short-cut staircase, we landed in front of a life-sized sculpture of a nude, post-coital couple. Our students reacted the way any 4th grade students would, but they were generally discreet, and they learned that artwork is sometimes controversial and uncomfortable.

And if we had never decided to take that short-cut they would have missed out on Calder, Nam June Paik, and, most importantly, the bedazzled beauty that is Mnonja.

Because, in the end, making mistakes empowers students to discover and experience for themselves.

What’s a mistake you or your students have made that became a learning opportunity? Share your experiences by commenting below.

Ali Foley

A proud product of Arlington, Virginia’s public bilingual education program, Ali developed a passion for international cultural heritage and the arts at an early age. An educator at heart and multimedia artist by trade, Ali loves to use art and technology to make learning more engaging and equitable. She has taught in three different countries and across multiple grade levels. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, developing indigenous heritage preservation projects, youth leadership programs, and facilitating workshops for teachers and health workers. As an Experiential Learning Educator with Live It Learn It she works with over 1,000 elementary students in primarily Ward 7 and 8. In her free time, Ali can be found hiking or trying new foods at restaurants and markets around the city.

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