Arts Across Learning Festival 2019: Getting it Wrong is Getting it Right

Last week Eoin McKenzie from Hidden Giants visited schools in Aberdeen as part of the Arts Across Learning Festival 2019, bringing them the ‘Getting it Wrong is Getting it Right’ workshop.

Eoin is a performance maker, participatory artist, and creative learning practitioner. As one of Hidden Giants’ associate artists, his work in schools develops experimental approaches to learning that encourage a deeper level of critical thinking about the processes and purposes of education; often in ways that are experiential, immersive, and positively disruptive.

The AALF sessions started by the pupils going around in a circle introducing themselves and sharing what they weren’t good at – ranging from ‘telling the time’, ‘leaving things at my Nana’s house’, ‘losing my glasses’, and ‘sometimes getting my spelling wrong’.

After a few games around the theme of success and failure to get warmed up, the children got into pairs and agreed on being A or B. Group A were issued with an impossible task and asked to solve their task through movement only. While this was happening, Group B the writers had to watch their partner and write what they were doing, thinking and feeling.  This went on for a fair while, pushing the children to keep going, keep generating ideas, keep moving and watching to see what more children can give and think about.

I set myself these two tasks:
Of trying to find a way of celebrating and embracing failure within a learning environment. 
Of giving students and teachers an embodied and active mode of developing resilience. 
I’ll let you decide which is the impossible and which is the possible. 

I was really struck by how when I introduced the idea behind the workshop – of making mistakes and trying to celebrate it – that the majority of students would get really excited; some would even cheer. To me it’s clear that there is a desire for young students to be allowed to learn in ways that encourage trial & error, mistakes & revisions, and even attempts at things well beyond our reach. The students reactions alone made me think lots about the potential benefits of creating more space in schools and classrooms for students to learn through attempting the impossible. 

My favourite impossible task was ‘Bring A Mountain Inside’, I think it’s quietly poetic and that allowed it to have lots of space for interpretation by the young people who got it. Some students pulled what appeared to be impossibly heavy weights, others transformed themselves into a mountain, one girl spent some time trying to make a huge lever. 

The reactions of the students varied from a real sense of enjoyment to a sense of struggle or being challenged – there was lots of things going on during all of the tasks. I’m asking students to try to find a process that allows them to attempt something they know for certain is impossible, then to generate as many different possible means of doing this – all the while, they’re performing, being observed and written about by partners, and the psychological demands that this brings with it. Some kids embraced the task and had fun with it – for them this mode of creative problem solving is easy – and for others they struggle to generate ideas and maybe get stuck in a rut – then it becomes a question of how do we react to the uncomfortable situations we might find ourselves in throughout life; and to me that’s an equally valid question to pose.

I think my favourite response was when I walked through the playground to deliver an afternoon session in a school I’d been working in during the morning, and a girl from the earlier class ran up to me with her friends to ask, excitedly, if she could do more impossible tasks. When I told her they could do impossible tasks whenever they wanted as long as they could come up with their own, they ran off screaming with joy! 

I think the next workshop would be about moving away from the impossible towards more everyday failures – ones that we might experience in the classroom or in day-to-day life. About developing a process with the class where we can unearth them and continue to repeat them and looking at what our mistakes reveal – how do we reflect on them so that we can find a way out of them? I believe that our cultural notion that mistakes are ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, or ‘to be avoided’ can be really damaging for our development as adaptable and critically equipped learners and as humans too!

The output of the workshop was different for each class with some creating an impossible poem, or performing their task to the class for them to guess and making a certificate of appreciation for their attempts to try to fail at completing their impossible task.


Photos by // Insta/@grantandersondotme

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