Thursday, 11 March 2010

A large red tea pot

A teacher of a class of seven and eight year olds posed a simple problem to her class.

“There are four blackbirds sitting in a tree. You take a catapult and shoot one of them. How many are left?”

“Three,” answered the first seven year old with certainty.
“One subtracted from four leaves three.”

“Zero,” answered the second pupils with equal certainty. “If you shoot one bird, the others will fly away.

“Stop being so mean to blackbirds,” says Molly from the outer edges of the page.

I read this story yesterday and it’s exactly the thing I would have loved as a kid. When I read it, I went straight into school maths problem mode and said, ‘three.’ But then enjoyed discovering the ‘trick.’

I asked chap and he said, “None.” Smart arse. I thought I was the queen of outside the box thinking! I soon revert to conditioned training when it comes maths – clearly.

I think this little vignette is a powerful metaphor that illustrates heaps about perspective. Neither of these pupils were wrong once their perspective was explained.

And in engaging with this puzzle, it also illustrates our relationship with the need to be ‘right.’

I think we all like to get things ‘right’ and I do wonder if It comes from a childhood schooling where we were given ticks or crosses. We were probably quite fragile with respect to self esteem anyway (back in those emotionally illiterate days), so to receive the ultimate ‘correct-good’ or ‘incorrect-bad’ judgement was a lot to hinge our little delicate psyches on! At school self esteem correlated directly to academic achievement.

I wonder (considering myself and observations of others), if an uneasiness with agreeing to disagree, a need to persuade others that what we are saying is right (whatever we are speculating about: fact or opinion) and the ridiculous satisfaction we sometimes get when we prove someone else wrong – might come from this little delicateness – no? We are so uncomfortable with being ‘wrong’ because of how we were made to feel as a child???? Just speculating. Again.

I’m going to cliché.

We learn more from mistakes don’t we? And mistakes don’t always turn out bad – especially if we can get over the fact we have made a mistake, reassess, reposition and make a ‘new’ most of it.

Fear of making mistakes can cause people not to even have a go – that’s a component of low self-esteem. I remember reading somewhere that the same fear can be blamed for non-finishers’ behaviour. If you don’t finish, you don’t get judged.

So what I suggest is a new relationship with making mistakes. I am not talking about mistakes that put people in unnecessary danger, but those little mishaps, those little attempts that didn’t quite turn out right. Let’s not feel disappointed, let’s not berate ourselves or feel deflated. Let’s celebrate the learning they gave us. Let’s also forgive others for their mistakes and not be like those tickky/crossy role-modelling teachers from our childhood. And I will draw on something I wrote ages ago.

This new relationship needs to start by re-conceptualising mistakes.
Perhaps we need to rename 'mistakes'..............

• an interesting diversion,
• an enjoyable, slight, off-task
• a meaningful learning route
• a worthwhile bash against convention
• what had to be done/thought to arrive where we got to
• a creative expansion
• a back burner for now
• not the one we chose today

So whether your mistake is ruining a recipe, taking the wrong turn, giving the wrong present, getting a fact wrong, saying the wrong thing…....see it as the learning opportunity it is and don’t be hard on yourself!


  1. On the subject of being afraid to have a go at something, I was reading just the other day about praising kids for effort rather than praising for results. If a child is always praised for result (what a lovely picture, well done for getting good marks, etc) which is the more natural thing to do, they can come to be afraid of doing anything that is a struggle, that they may fail at - as they have learned praise comes from a good result. And often praise for result gives children little to formulate an " internal measuring system" of what is good and not good because a child, say, who is naturally good at spelling and finds it easy, if praised for getting 10 out of 10 in a spelling test, thinks well I didn't really do anything. Research consistently shows that children praised for the effort they put in (if they did put effort in), regardless of result, grow up to be adults who will persevere instead of giving up when things are tough and who have a 'let's have a go' attitude. Very hard to put into practice though - I've been trying!

    On the need to be right thing...I have often thought when discussing something or arguing with my husband (!), that if I can put my 'need to be right' behind my 'need to maintain a good relationship with you', things would be better. Hard though - as you say, it is somehow deeply ingrained in most people.

    And I am always right.


  2. I am reminded of a story about a student in a physics exam. The question was "how would you determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer?" We all know the "right" answer, but the student in this example came up with several magnificent "wrong" ones. The one I liked the best was: "Go onto the roof and drop the barometer off the edge. Time its descent and you have the height of the building as 1/2gt**2" (One half the acceleration due to gravity times the time of descent squared).

    One of the "new" management theories that was promoted during my time in industry was praise for failure. Not for incompetence, but for "having a go" with a good idea, whether it turned out to work or not. The thinking being that the survival of the enterprise depended on innovations, most of which fail.

    On the subject of arguments, I like such things as they are the basis of learning. The more firmly I believe something wrong, the more important it is that I lose the argument. Perhaps I come across as dogmatic in my blog discussions, but I'm here to learn :)

  3. From now on, I'll play that 'Men At Work' song in my head for comic relief when something goes wrong.

  4. @Eric: I only know one "Men at Work" song, that is "Do you come from a land down under?" I'm not sure that the song I mention is the one you mean. I you tell me which one you mean I'll look it up on Spotify.

  5. I went for the obvious 'three'

  6. Hi Claire.
    Yes – too much focus on the product and not the process is how much education has been. The critical skills training I went on was about shifting greater attention to the process. Get the process better – and the product will get better too.

    Creativity is stifled when we fear going ‘outside the box’. The first time someone laughs at us when we do something a bit a sad lesson in conforming to mainstream and not taking adventures.

    Yes Claire – you are always right. ENTJs always are and forcefully so too!!!!

    Codgi – I’d be throwing it out the window – I never liked barometers! I am naturally an experimenter but my schooling tended the stifle it rather than enhance it. There was a lot of ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ in my schooling.

    I like a good debate – if I learn from it and if I don’t feel insulted – i.e. it gets personal or you are made to feel stupid for holding a particular view!!! Now some of that is in the delivery but I take responsibility for some of it being in the sensitive receiving! Healthy debate (see post slipped in 18th Feb) is a skill. I think with reference to this post and our different insecurities and sensitivities)...some of us can tend to over-personalise debate, become defensive and then fail to receive its potential teachings. But there are definitely gentle and brutal ways of challenging a point a person has made. Bloggin has taught me lots. I have become better at challenging (I think) and receiving!!!

    Eric – explain yourself!!!!

    FF – so did I. It’s what we’re conditioned to think.

  7. 'It's a Mistake' by Men At Work. Actually, it's an anti war song, but it was kind of silly and is so repetitive that it gets stuck in my mind.

  8. I seem to paint an awful lot of learning opportunities.

    Did you hear the one about the tiny kid in the maths class who was asked how many rabbits she would have if the teacher gave her three rabbits and then another three rabbits.
    The teacher went all hissy when she kept coming up with seven. Eventually she stoped crying and explained she already had one at home.

  9. Oops, "Stopped" has two 'p's must get it correct :)

  10. I used to say to my painting tutor, ' my paintings are awful' and he'd reply 'The trouble is they aren't bad enough.'
    What he meant was that only by risking failure could I hope to achieve something worthwhile - playing safe was sure way to medoccraty.

    Eddie Izzard does a great routine about cool and crap - and how close they are. One eye patch: hey, cool. Two eye patches ???? He describes fashion as a circle that starts with boring , then normal, cool, cooool, hip and groovy... looking like a dick head!

    Makes me laugh anyway

  11. I assumed I'd miss by such a margin that all the birds would remain in the tree. Low self-esteem? (I almost didn't post this but didn't want to be told off for being a non-finisher.)

  12. I remember an incident in my class at school. The teacher said to a pupil: "I give you seven pounds and take back from you three pounds. How much have I given you?" The student responded persistently with "Seven pounds", which was of course correct, but not the answer sought.

  13. Hi Molly P
    How many would remain if I used a catapult? Bev replied, 'All of them, because you have terrible eyesight'. What, I said? 'And your hearing', she replied.

    I loved Sandra's reply about her paintings.

    Your comment...If you don’t finish, you don’t get judged, hit me with some force. I always thought I never finished things because as a kid I'd always be moved around in care and was never given the opportunity to finish things I had started. Methinks some truth may be in the judgement theory.

  14. "Not bad enough to avoid mediocrity" that's a good one Mark, I'll stick it on my shelf. (It might need a tadge explaining to visitors mind!)

  15. Moll, have you heard of Sara Stanley? she's Norwich based and does similar stuff to you/this.

  16. Eric – ah – it all makes sense now......thanx War is a mistake but appears rarely to be a learning hoooomans. Tsk tsk

    Sandra – ah – learning opportunities – very good!!! It might sound suicidal if I said my life was a learning opportunity...but isn’t that what a life is perhaps....not a’ve put this comment in a clumsy place. Bear with me. I always mean well and I am not suicidal. That’s that then.

    It’s great how many perspective stories are coming out of the woodwork.
    Maddy says you can have that painting we had if you still want it. ?!?!

    Mark – having tried in my youth to reach some kind of mediocrity so as not to be laughed at quite so much.....I now think mediocrity is an insult!!! I admire extremes......efforts beyond the box. ‘Good’ or Bad’ in the eye of the beholder...see your post.
    I think Eds is great...clever funny...when I watch him I am always gripped open mouth concentrating and refusing to laugh in case I miss something. I haven’t seen that particular act.

    Jonathan – never mind Jonathan. Celia loves you.

    Codgi – yes...narrow conditioned ideas of ‘right’ are inhibiting to creative thinking. Booooo

    Hi Ken D – tell Bev from me ‘respec’ for quick wit albeit at lovely Ken D’s expense (for which she needs a slight reprimand – a ‘tut’ ought to do it)

    Aha – but some people are wired up to be finishers more than others too (see Myers Briggs P-J) spectrum. From your blog I have guesses you as defo P

    Mt R – I am wondering if Sara Stanley knows an acquaintance of mine Maria Cornish because she mentioned a philosopher type teacher that worked with Stephen Bowkett.....see Norwich isn’t overly big. I haven’t come across her myself unless she was the woman with Maria in the book shop last Saturday...teacher of little ones at Sparhawk???? to you all Bloggsters

  17. I shall consult the oracle that is the internet (ie facebook) and see...

    *fuzziness indicating passage of time* (©Molly Potter)

    Well she's friends with her on FB, so yes...

  18. That was all I could muster last night....The full version is...

    That's a fine bit of detective work there Mr T.

    How do you know Sara? Maria is absolutely adorable....

  19. Why has nobody asked me why this post is called a large red teapot? or is it obvious?


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