November 10th, 2014 by Richard Burman
Don’t get me wrong, I love to receive compliments. I even fish for them sometimes; “Did you enjoy our concert?” “Did you like the stew I made?” But it really struck a chord when I read Salman Khan’s blog from the Khan Academy website. The point of the blog is to explain why he will never tell his son he is smart. He decided to praise his son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. The approach Khan Academy takes towards learning is that of the ‘growth mindset’ based on the idea that capability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure.
Around the same time that I read this blog I was on an interesting shoot at a private school. We were filming a first grade class doing math problems. Up front, on a Smart Board, there were two groups of circles displayed. They had to replicate this layout at their desks with tokens. It was great to see hands being engaged as part of the solving process. The objective was to decide if the tokens/circles on the left side were less, equal or greater than those on the right side. One student was chosen to go up to the Smart Board and insert the appropriate mathematical symbol between the two groups. More often than not the teacher would say when the student got it right “You are AMAZING”.
I shivered a bit when I heard this. I do believe you can cause great damage when you criticize a person to the point that they see themselves as dumb and unable to do anything right. At the same time to call someone AMAZING for doing something that is quite unextraordinary can in the long run inhibit the striving to do something more difficult, something slightly beyond our reach.
How does this relate to the subject of MAKING. I firmly believe when you use your hands to make and fix things you get instant feedback. First you measure carefully, scribe a line that is perpendicular to the edge, keep your tool vertical and then saw away. When the scrap end falls and you take your final piece into what you are building and it fits, you don’t need anybody to say you’re amazing. The very tactile experience of what you just did is all the feedback you need.
The very direct feedback that comes with MAKING can also communicate that you screwed up. I had this experience recently making a device that turns an electric hand sander into an ultrasonic parts cleaner. I measured where holes should have been and then made my marks and drilled. My holes were off as I had not paid enough attention and marked them at 10.5″ instead of 10.125″. I thought I could solve my first problem by altering other measurements to compensate, but that would be more problematic. This seemingly smart decision would have left the tub sitting on top (with cleaning solution in it) very loosely secured. In the end I just bent the threaded rods and everything worked.
I would love to hear your stories of when a MAKING experience communicated something to you. Was it “Good Job!” or was it “Sorry that doesn’t work, find another way.”