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A Personal Story: How using mistakes to become whole changes a life?

February 1, 2012

Brian Goldman is a doctor who has made mistakes.  He tells his personal story about how making mistakes in medicine is the ‘great secret.’  Doctors don’t want to admit that they make mistakes.  They are forced to go underground and bury their shame over being human.

As I listened to his compelling story, I couldn’t help but wonder if being a doctor is not unlike being a teacher when it comes to a professional culture that will not accept failure as part of the job.  Dr. Goldman makes the point that medicine is the work of human beings and human beings make mistakes.  It is only when they admit those mistakes, learn from them and make the necessary adjustments to grow in their craft that they learn to live with their fallibility.  In Dr. Goldman’s world of medicine, it is unacceptable to admit you make mistakes.  Doing so might get you sued in our society.  For another, doctors are unable to talk about their mistakes in public for fear of being labeled as incompetent.

He draws on the analogy of the batting average in baseball.  No doubt, there are other analogies in sports and life that he could have used.  In baseball, a batter with a batting average of .300 is considered a good hitter, but he hits safely only 3 out of 10 times.  A batter with a batting average of .400 is considered a legendary hitter, but he only hits safely 4 out of 1o times.  As Dr. Goldman points out, it would be totally unacceptable in medicine if a doctor was successful with only 3 out of 10 patients.

What about a teacher?  What if only 8 out of 25 students (0.32) passed the end-of-year high-stakes test?   Would that teacher be considered a good teacher?  We know the answer is no!  Perfection is expected in medicine and in teaching.  It is expected that all teachers will achieve 100% effectiveness in moving all learners to the desired outcome.  No Child Left Behind!  In this world, there is no room for mistakes.  We have to hide our imperfections and bury our shame if we fail a student.  Just as Dr. Goldman had to do when he failed Ms. Drucker.

Parker Palmer has written extensively about living in the Tragic Gap.  In A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Towards an Undivided Life, he defines living in the Tragic Gap as:

a gap between the way things are the way we know they might be.  (page 175)

He writes about that to live an ‘undivided life,’ where the inner and outer manifestations of ourselves are one or well integrated, necessitates that we stand in the Tragic Gap.

That we faithfully hold the paradox between reality and possibility in hopes of being open to a third way.  (p. 175)

Holding the paradox of two opposites requires that we lead what Palmer calls the examined life.  Below is a three-minute video of Palmer describing what it means to live in the Tragic Gap.

The metaphor of standing in the Tragic Gap, living an examined life is powerful.  In his talk, Dr. Goldman is yearning for a culture that accepts him living in the Tragic Gap, the space between a medical profession that cannot admit to making mistakes in public versus a profession that is human, valuing human life.  What I loved about Dr. Goldman’s TED Talk was that he was standing in the Tragic Gap on stage, sharing his story and demonstrating how making mistakes is human.  He was modeling what it means to live an examined life.

If only we could take his example and weave it into our work as educators.  Starting Close In, a poem by David Whyte, suggests that we all have to take the first step, a step close in.  That first step for me is that I have to look in the mirror and do my best to stand in the Tragic Gap, living with the paradoxes that exist in education.

  • No Child Left Behind and life is not fair in the United States is a paradox.
  • We need to educate the Whole Child and yet we grade students incessantly, allowing many of them to fail without second chances is a paradox.

I can devote my energy to helping understand and address these paradoxes; however, I need to stand in the gap that exists and recognize that the way things are might bump up against the way things ought to be.  I can continue to speak on behalf of  how they ought to be.

In education, we have to move away from a grading system that punishes students for making mistakes.  We have to adopt a new system that helps students learn to be whole, to value themselves for who they are, and to take risks with their learning.  Let’s agree to Start Close In.

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