Is Emphasizing Failure a Mistake?

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

 

Alfie Kohn just kicked my educational philosophy butt!  In his blog post, “The Failure of Failure,” Kohn lays out a very convincing argument against promoting “productive failure” in the classroom and as a feature of progressive education.

“If you squint hard, I suppose that taking more time to figure something out could be described as a kind of failure, at least if you tend to think of success as immediately arriving at the right answer.  But that’s a weird way to conceive of meaningful learning.

On the one hand, such a description is too narrow.  To focus on the struggle (or temporary ‘failure’) that’s involved is to ignore most of what defines progressive or constructivist education.  Much more important are features like a curriculum built around open-ended questions rather than well-defined problems, and a change in the classroom structure that results in having students learn with and from one another.  ‘Productive failure’ misses all of this.

At the same time, that phrase is also too broad.  It lets in too much by implying (without evidence) that failure is a salient feature of how students experience a progressive classroom.  And it taps into a wider conservative narrative about the supposed value of failure and frustration—a recrudescence of the Protestant work ethic.”

 

As someone whose catch phrase is “Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust—and Attempt Again” as a metaphor for how learning works, Kohn’s critique of failure comes very close to home.  I spend a lot of time talking to kids and teachers about how “failure” is a part of learning—a necessary part.  That making mistakes is what provides the brain with the opportunity to analyze, adjust, and try again.  And that it is in that analyzing, adjusting, and trying again that learning happens.

And I believe it.

Still.

Even after everything Kohn had to say about failure.

Even though I agree with almost everything he said in his post.

 

Kohn believes that many children who experience failure in school will develop debilitating interpretations of their mistakes that can quickly become a vicious cycle of self-defeating behaviors.

“The bad news is that coming up short may indeed be experienced by children as debilitating, particularly under certain circumstances.  As Deborah Stipek of Stanford University explains, that experience may change kids’ understanding of why they succeed or fail.  Unlike “children who have a history of good performance,” those who have learned to see themselves as failures are “more likely to attribute success [when it does happen] to external causes, and failure to a lack of ability.”  A kid who doesn’t do well assumes that if he does succeed, he must have just gotten lucky—or that the task was easy.  And he assumes that if he fails again, which he regards as more likely, it’s because he doesn’t have what it takes.

This quickly becomes a vicious circle because attributing results to causes outside of one’s control makes people feel even more helpless, even less likely to do well in the future.  The more they fail, the more they construct an image of themselves that leads to still more failure.  That’s particularly true when students are deliberately given overly difficult tasks in the name of “rigor.”  Or when the failure occurs in the context of intense pressure to succeed—or, worse, to defeat other students who are also trying to succeed.”

 

I can’t argue with any of that.  I see evidence of that vicious cycle all the time.  I see evidence of debilitating interpretations of failure.  In classroom after classroom.  In school after school.  In state after state.  The problem with unhelpful interpretations of failure is widespread in our educational system.

 

But I disagree with Kohn about one point.  While I think we should be doing everything we can to adopt structural changes to our education system and move towards “approaches defined by collaboration, discover, and open-ended questions.”  I don’t think that is sufficient.  We also need to move away from grade levels and our grading systems.  We need to empower teachers to address the social/emotional needs of our students.  And, we should be teaching learners powerful ways to interpret failure and how to move beyond habits of Attempt—Fail—Give up.

Alfie Kohn, I do not want to be part of the “fix the kid, not the schools” narrative that may be lurking in the grit and growth mindset movements.  I know our schools need radical transformation and I am standing for that and all that it entails.

But I am also not waiting for it.  And if I have a student in front of me that has unhelpful interpretations about their own capacity to learn I am going to use all the story editing techniques I can to help them come up with more empowering interpretations even if their schools are not yet designed to empower them.

And if I have a teacher in front of me, that hasn’t yet begun to experiment with moving away from grade level based standards and standardized curriculums, I am going to do everything I can to push their thinking and encourage them to engage in that experimentation.

I want to be part of an “Empower the kid, empower the schools” narrative that has both teachers and students engage in work that is challenging, meaningful, and designed to send the message that there is nothing wrong with not yet being excellent.  I want to ensure that educators are empowered to treat all learners to the ‘just right’ degree of challenge that allows the learner to experience struggle combined with success and understanding.  I want to empower educators to understand the underlying psychology and be alert for the subtle signals that demonstrate that a learner is at the impact of an unhelpful story and ensure that they know effective strategies for shifting the interpretation.

We are all learning and making mistakes is how we do it.

“Superhero Brain Man”—How a Silly Little Song Changed a Life

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

A while ago, I wrote about my nephew—how he was coming home from school telling his mother he was “stupid” because he was struggling with reading in first grade.  I was happy to work with him.  This is what I do. 

And I wasn’t worried.  I knew he wasn’t stupid.

But I also knew that—if he couldn’t develop a more powerful story about himself—fear of being stupid could grow like a dark, dank beanstalk and throw shadows on his life in ways all too depressingly familiar.  Shadows that could last a long, long time.

So I worked with him on his reading.  I coached him.  I used all the Read Right™ strategies that I know work.

But, honestly, I didn’t work with him that much.   I didn’t have time.  I was busy travelling and teaching other kids in other places how to more effectively push themselves up the learning curve. 

I think I probably worked with Kaemon on his reading about 10 or 15 hours total last year and I haven’t had time to work with him at all this school year.

 

And yet, he is doing amazingly better.

He is no longer coming home saying he is stupid.  He is loving school!  And he is reading—comfortably, naturally, and with meaning.  I overheard him on the phone the other night as he was reading his math homework out loud to himself and he sounded like a seasoned pro.

 

Wow!  How could 10 or 15 hours of tutoring have made that much of a difference?  I mean, this stuff is powerful and it works, but it doesn’t always work quite that fast.

 

I think there was something else at play.  In addition to using Read Right strategies, I threw in a couple of my own—well borrowed, of course, from other amazing educators and thinkers before me—and spent almost as much time coaching him on his mindset and his stories about himself as I did on his reading.

I taught him that ALL learners make mistakes when they are learning and that mistakes were not to be feared or avoided or hidden.  Mistakes were opportunities to try again.  Mistakes were opportunities for learning.

I taught him that he had an amazing, adaptable human brain that was DESIGNED for learning.  That learning was what his brain loved to do.

Then, one day, when his head hit the table and he scrunched his shoulders dejectedly and said he didn’t want to “do homework” (our term for reading coaching) after only five minutes of practice and a couple of miscues, I tried something new.

A power pose.

“Kaemon,” I said, “stand up and let’s try something.”

He got to his feet.

I stood my legs wide and puffed out my chest with my fists on my hips like a very Rubenesque Wonder Woman.

“Stand like this,” I suggested.  “Like you’re a superhero.”

Kaemon copied my pose and puffed out his little chest.

“Sometimes you can totally change your mood if you just stand like this.  It’s called a power pose and it’s designed to tell your brain that you are powerful and ready to learn!”

Some impish part of me—or perhaps the frustrated songwriter part—compelled me to add a little ditty to our power pose.  So I started singing.

“I’m a superhero brain man!  I like to make my brain work, a work, a work!”

Kaemon joined me in my singing with a seven-year-old’s joy in being silly all over his face.  After a few rounds of off-kilter singing, we got back to work reading with a renewed zest.

Since that day, when I get the chance to read with him, we always hum a few bars and occasionally power pose again as we remind ourselves that my man Kaemon is a superhero brain man who loves to learn!

And there’s nothing sweeter than listening to him begging his mom if I can come over to “do homework” because he is so proud of the progress he is making in mastering reading.

Nothing sweeter than noticing he is no longer coming home saying he is stupid.

Nothing sweeter than listening to him read his math homework to himself like a boss!

He’s a superhero brain man—that’s for sure!

And the sun has chased out the shadows in his story of himself and his capacity to learn.

When Personalized Learning is Too Impersonal

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash 

I remember the first time I heard the term “playlist” used in an educational context—it was in an audiobook I was listening to on the treadmill.

The author talked about this new charter school called RocketShip in the Bay Area.  He described how the teachers used playlists to personalize the learning and allow each student to pursue mastery of learning targets.

I remember being so excited that I yelled out, “Yes!” and pumped my fist into the air a few times as I was walking (perhaps not the coolest thing to do in the gym, but hey, I am a certified learning geek).

A playlist—using technology to help teachers navigate the logistics of bringing fluidity to our standardized system—this seemed brilliant!  I wanted so badly to go see it action, but the demands of my job and the shortcomings in my finances prevented such an expedition (so far).

 

Then, recently, I read something disturbing about playlists in education—the “playlist cycle of doom!”  

The playlist cycle of doom?  How could something designed to give learners exactly what their brains needed—based on where they actually were instead of where they were supposed to be—have turned into a cycle of doom?

This article’s author, Rupa Chandra Gupta, described the program her school was implementing:

“In 2015, our school was selected to join the first cohort of a personalized learning program that involved a web-based technology platform, curricula, digital assessments and extended training.  A foundation of the program had students learn the content (facts, definitions, procedures) largely on their own.  Students work through an online set of activities—called a playlist—for each topic.  They then take a quiz to demonstrate mastery.  Ideally, this is done with little support.  That way, teachers can spend more time working with students on application of content and projects.

As I observed classrooms, I noticed a significant portion of students go through a disturbing cycle: do the playlist, take the assessment, fail it.  Do the playlist (again), take the assessment (again), fail it (again).  Do the playlist (yep, one more time), take the assessment (uh huh), fail it (surprise, surprise).  It’s a frustrating experience, especially for struggling students.”

 

What Gupta described was not what had me pumping my fist into the air and embarrassingly yelling out loud in public. 

No.  This was not my vision of an educational playlist.  This “personalized” learning was far too incredibly impersonal.

I was excited about the possibility of using technology to allow teachers to bring fluidity to the groups of students they worked with, so that students were always able to work in their struggle zone—where it was never too easy nor too hard.  Where they had multiple opportunities to engage in Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust in a supportive learning environment.

I never imagined creating a system that expected learners to learn on their own. 

Most of us need to work with others to access the true power of our amazing brains.  Humans are social creatures.  Learning is almost always most powerful when it is a social endeavor

I never imagined creating a system that did not include coaching. 

Beginning learners, who are on the low end of the learning curve, are not usually knowledgeable enough about the type of adjustments to try when engaged in a cycle of attempt—fail—analyze—adjust.  Having someone from further up the curve offer suggestions (coaching) about what types of adjustments to try is an extremely powerful key to learning. 

Analyzing and adjusting is a vital component of powerful learning and one that doesn’t happen with dependent learners without powerful coaching.  That is, unless you’re engaging learners in reflection about their own learning with others who are at the same stage of the learning curve (and who have previously learned skills for examining and sharing their own thinking).

 

Fortunately, Gupta did not leave us stuck with a vision of the Playlist Cycle of Doom.  She went on to describe just such an example of personalized learning that employed the power of shared self-reflection.  She discussed a second grade teacher who coached her students to reflect and share their strategies for reading non-fiction.

 

Unfortunately, Gupta’s school is not the only one to have experimented with taking the personal out of personalized learning. 

I attended an online school billed as a “competency-based” approached to higher education.

What that meant for me was almost no actual human interaction.  I was assigned a mentor at the beginning of my program which was a feature that had really drawn me to the school when I was conducting my research into master’s programs.

I was very excited by this feature.  I’d never truly had a mentor before and was really looking forward to someone who could push my thinking and point me in directions I might not have considered on my own.

Unfortunately, my mentor did none of those things.  I’m not sure whether it was a design of the program, or her own lack of clarity of what the role of mentor entailed, but my assigned mentor only acted in the role of “accountability partner.”  She allotted me 15 minutes a week and the main purpose of our calls was to make sure I was getting my assignments complete and turned it.

15 minutes a week is not a lot of time to build a relationship with someone.  It certainly wasn’t enough time to ponder all the questions I had about teaching, leading, learning, and where my place might be in the vast universe of shifting the paradigm for how schools work in America.

So, if the mentor wasn’t going to build a relationship with me and help me to ponder those questions, perhaps my professors might.

Except, I didn’t have any professors.

Each “course” I took in this program only had assignments. The “competency-based” approach meant that I could tackle these assignments at my own pace and whenever I wanted. There were materials I could access and boards I could post to if I had questions.  And, to be fair, if I had posted questions, I am sure that a real human with real knowledge would have replied to my query. 

But, I did not post questions.

The kinds of questions I had required a relationship and trust to be asked.  They weren’t the sort of questions I was comfortable posting for strangers.

I still haven’t finished this master’s program.

I dropped out (for now) at the very end because I didn’t have the emotional, institutional or financial resources to make the capstone project happen.

I am not trying to blame the pain of that personal failure on my unnamed school, but I am issuing a clarion call along with Rupa Chandra Gupta.

“Playlists alone don’t equal personalized learning” and personalized pacing alone doesn’t equal competency-based education.

We need to keep experimenting with how to use technology to allow personalized pacing and targeted lessons, but we must never forget the very human and social aspect of learning and the power of coaching along the way.

The Rocket Fuel of Learning

 

“Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust” these words have formed a mantra for me ever since I first heard and saw them during my training as a Read Right™ consultant.  Dr. Dee Tadlock drew them as a cycle and explained that that is how brains learn a process.

I’d never heard it put that way before, and it struck a deeply resonate note within me.

Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust—and attempt again.  A continuing cycle of learning with FAILING and making mistakes taking center stage in the learning process.

That certainly wasn’t how I’d been conducting my learning life.

Mistakes were things to be embarrassed about and minimized. 

Failure was definitely not good.  Up to that point in my life, I was pretty adept at avoiding it—mostly by making sure that I stuck to my lane and did things that I was already pretty good at.

My history was filled with abandoned learning journeys.  Things that I’d decided I just wasn’t very good at like singing, dancing, selling, writing, getting published, playing sports…..  Oh, the list was long.

Then I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and “Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust” sang even louder in my ears and in my heart.

This—this thing we were teaching our teachers and that they were teaching their students about how learning works—this WAS the growth mindset.  If they could really grasp this idea about learning from their time in a Read Right program, they could use it in the rest of their lives to power their learning in other areas.  This was powerful!

The thing is, we didn’t always do a good job of highlighting this valuable way of looking at learning.  Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust is the foundation upon which the Read Right™ methodology is based, but we only ever talked about it on the first day of training when we introduced teachers to the methodology and the theory that underpins it.  Those words are never again mentioned in our manual or in my trainer’s manual.

I changed that.

I put it Center Stage during my trainings.  I’d draw it on the board and talk to students about it.  I called it “The Rocket Fuel of Learning” and would bring in stories of famous people who had shared how they had learned through their failures.  I shared my own stories of failing and trying again.  I encouraged my trainees and the students in their classes to share stories of learning through failure.

For ten years I have been traveling the country and working in classrooms to help people understand the power of a personalized competency-based approach to getting better at reading.  I love this work.  I love what I get to do.  I love the difference I get to make in classrooms and in the lives of students who have an opportunity to get better at reading AND at understanding how learning works.

And yet…

And yet…

I fear we play too small a game.

I fear that too many of the students we reach do not take the idea of Attempt—Fail—Analyze—Adjust out into their other classrooms.  I fear that they do not apply the Rocket Fuel of Learning to math and science and Literature.  And I fear that lack of application is because the culture and the structures of their schools are not yet set up for that.

They are not set up for that. 

They are set up for grading.  For assignments.  For tests.  For one and done.

I know.  I see it.  In state after state.  In school after school.

And yet…

And yet… 

The change is coming!  Glory, hallelujah, the change is coming!

I see it!

I see it in Monte Syrie and his Project 180 blog.  In his tagline, “Do, Reflect, Do Better.”

In his words as he daily blogs about the lessons he and his students are learning as they attempt—fail—analyze—adjust—and attempt again:

“The 180 experience is a cycle of practice, feedback, and performance. The kids practice. I give them feedback. They perform. I assess their performances. Together, we adjust their aims and trajectories, and we enter the next cycle. When learning is a circle and not a line it obviates the constructs of anxiety and finality. When kids know they have practiced the performance (practice looks identical to performance), anxiety is greatly reduced, for they know what to expect. This is not always the case with “tests,” many of which are often the embodiment of the “gotcha game” that some teachers play under the guise of “rigor.” It is no wonder, then, that kids experience anxiety, especially in high school, where they arrive with their deeply conditioned responses and continue their “conditioning” throughout most of their educational experience, up to and including college. Further, when kids know they have another shot (multiple if necessary) to demonstrate proficiency, they come to learn that assessment can and should be “for” learning. And, too, they learn that the notion of finality is really more a teacher’s choice than a dictum of the system, but it has been their reality for so long they may never fully grasp the “untruth” of the nefarious notion of a test being an end rather than a bridge. And that is what I want performances to be: bridges, crossings to the next stage. I don’t want them to create anxiety. I don’t want them to connote finality. I want them to be natural steps along the learning journey. But that takes time, and that takes trust. I speak it. The kids hear it. But they do not yet believe it. After all, I am up against years of conditioning, so I will be patient and diligent. We will get there.”

 

I see it in other teacher bloggers who are making the same transition to classrooms and schools without grades and sharing the hashtag “#goinggradeless”.  More and more teachers experimenting—attempting, failing, analyzing, adjusting, and attempting again—as they figure out how to empower students to own their own learning and push themselves up the learning curve.

 

I see it in the stories of schools, districts—and ENTIRE STATES—moving to mastery-based learning models.  Stories that are posted regularly on www.competencyworks.org.  Beautiful articulations of the learning journeys of educators that are transforming their learning environments through the process of attempt—fail—analyze—adjust as they learn what works and what doesn’t.

 

So, yes.  So far, I and the company I work for, have been playing too small a game. 

We make a difference for the teachers and the students we get to reach, but our message of mastery-based learning that starts with wherever a student is at and lets them progress at their own pace through cycling until mastery is achieved, is not yet reaching beyond the confines of our Read Right™ classrooms.

But our learning journey is not done.

I am adapting and adopting the mission statement of Education Reimagined as my own.

They say:

“Education Reimagined exists to accelerate the shift to learner-centered education in the U.S. such that it is inevitable and irreversible.

I say:

Growth Deliberate Consulting exists to accelerate the shift to learner-centered, mastery-based holistic education in the U.S. and beyond such that it is inevitable and irreversible.

 And I am learning from others who are up to accelerating the shift as well.  Others who are sharing their learning journeys and lighting the way.

So thank you Monte Syrie.  Thank you Competency Works.  Thank you Education Reimagined.  Thank you Read Right and thank you Dr. Tadlock for helping me to see that F A I L simply stands for First Attempt In Learning.

 

Jeff Pagano—Guitar Learning Hero

Last Friday, I sat out under the stars and watched a friend of mine push himself up the learning curve.  He did so with grace, humor, courage, soul, and a great deal of rhythm.  Jeff Pagano, a long-time singer, newly-minted guitarist, and absolute beginner as a paid performer, organized his first concert as a soloist in the back yard of his home in Eugene.

As is so often the case, while I sincerely enjoyed his music, I was more entranced by his learning story.  Jeff only began learning to play the guitar after he turned 40.  Now he is an accomplished musician and eager to continue learning so that he can share his love of music with even more people.

I am eager to share his stories of powerful learning with everyone that I can.

Jeff started learning to play the guitar because of his passion for singing.  He’d sung with other musicians who could play instruments, but realized that if he could accompany himself, his opportunities to sing would increase dramatically.

“I decided to start learning guitar at age 40 because that’s a good age to learn something new.  And the motivation for doing so, was the fact that I was a singer, and I performed with other musicians—but only as a singer.  And it was really hard to show up at an open mike and ask people, ‘Say, hey, do you know to play this song so I can sing it?’ “

Jeff’s confidence that “age 40 was a good age to learn something new” was inspiring to me.  I gave up on my own musical aspirations a long time ago (after a spectacular failure at an open mike in Alaska) but my journey into learning how the brain learns has encouraged me to think that it might not be too late for me or anyone else.

Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero:  The New Musician and the Science of Learning, is a neuroscientist who undertook a similar journey to learn guitar in his 40s.  Here’s what he had to say,

“All my life I wanted to become musical, but I always assumed that I never had a chance.  My ears are dodgy, my fingers too clumsy.  I have no natural sense of rhythm and a lousy sense of pitch.  I have always loved music but could never sing, let alone play an instrument; in school I came to believe that I was destined to be a spectator, rather than a participant, no matter how hard I tried.”

Jeff Pagano, did not start his musical journey with as much emotional baggage as Gary and I, and he had other musical skills that he’d honed through his love of singing that he could use to help himself learn guitar.  However, I believe the biggest gift that he had, was that strong belief that he could learn and a strong desire to learn fueled by his love of singing.

As a teacher, I see too often learners that have given up on their own learning journeys. Who have said to themselves that they just don’t have what it takes.  As a learner, I too, have given up on my own learning more times than I want to admit.  I asked Jeff if he had ever wanted to give up.

“No.  No, because the desire to sing was always in the forefront.  One of the things that I always say when I talk to musicians, is that I am a singer that plays guitar.  And there are a lot of guitar players that sing.  So, because I am a singer that plays guitar, I knew that I wanted to sing and that this was my way in.  I never wanted to give up the singing and I was missing the opportunity to sing.  There is a part of me that just has to sing.  I’ll be a singer for the rest of my life.  It’s just the best thing I know how to do.”

Jeff Pagano possessed both a growth mindset—the belief that he could learn—and what Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, calls ignition—that “set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.”

That powerful one-two punch—a growth mindset combined with ignition—is what had Jeff continue to engage in the sometimes arduous deliberate practice that leads to learning and mastery.

Jeff’s learning journey is also filled with stories of teachers who made a difference in his progress.  Some of those teachers were friends.  Some were other musicians.  All of them helped him take on new challenges and view himself and what he could do in a different way.

“One of my first and best teachers was a musician here in Eugene named Tony Gilchrest.  He was a great teacher for me, because he didn’t study music theory and he wasn’t a professional teacher.  He was just a smart guy who was a musician, who played in bands here locally, and he understood how to teach.  He taught me how to listen to a song and how to figure out what the chords were in real simple songs.  So he set me on the right path right from the start because he showed me how I could play songs that I liked.”

Once Jeff started building some skill at playing guitar, he encountered another problem.  The challenge of playing and singing at the same time.  He could play songs.  He could sing songs.  He just couldn’t play and sing at the same time.  This all changed one evening with some very powerful coaching from a friend.

“So, once I started playing music, it was basically just me and the dog sitting in my little cabin off of 8th street.  And I would very happily pound out two chords and feel like I was a rock star.  I think the dog liked it.

And then, at some point, there was another person in the room where I would play guitar and the evening that I spoke of was the night that Michael Glownia came over.

He was sitting across the room from me and I was strumming chords on the guitar.  I wasn’t, at that point, singing and playing, I was just playing guitar.  I wasn’t able to coordinate the hands and the vocals at the same time.

As I was strumming some chords, he was talking to me and he noticed that every time he asked me a question or it was time for me to contribute to the conversation, I would stop playing the guitar.  And at one point, he said, “Why did you stop playing?” when I was answering one of his questions.  And I said, “Well, it’s because I can’t play guitar and speak or sing at the same time.”

He said, “Oh, that’s interesting.  Why don’t we make a game out of this?”

So he told me, “Just pick three easy chords.  A nice easy progression.  Just play those chords over and over again and I’m going to ask you questions. And I want you to answer them for me.”

And I distinctly remember the first question that he asked me.  I’m strumming guitar and he said, “What color is the sky?”

The strumming stopped and I said, “Blue”.

So he said, “Okay, let’s try that again.”

And then, for the remainder of the evening, he would have me strum these three chords on the guitar and then speak or sing my answers.  He started with really simple one-word answers like, “What’s your name?”, and I would sing, “Jeff” while I was playing guitar.   We would celebrate that.   Like, “Wow.  That’s great!”

And then he would say, “What’s your last name?” and I’d say my last name.  “Okay.  What’s your full name?”

Then he asked me what my address was.

Then he started to ask me questions that required more than three or four words to answer.

It was a wonderful evening.

It was a definitely a breakthrough for me, and the next day I had to get on a plane and fly to Florida to go visit family.  And I was sitting on the porch of a friend’s house playing guitar and I was able to sing songs that I had already worked out with Charlie where I already had all the chords and all the words together.  And from that evening on, I was able to play and sing at the same time.”

 

Jeff’s story of this learning session moved me when he shared it during his concert on Friday, and it moved me again when he shared it during our interview, because it is such a powerful example of deliberate practice and giving the brain exactly what it needs to figure something out.

Michael Glownia may not have been a trained music teacher or a trained neuroscientist, but he definitely employed some powerful learning principles during that jam session with his friend Jeff.

First, he decreased the complexity of the guitar playing while adding in the complexity of strumming and vocalizing at the same time—just three chords over and over instead of playing a complex song.

Second, he had Jeff engage in a cycle of Attempt-Fail-Attempt Again over and over, thus allowing the brain to analyze and adjust implicitly when something wasn’t working.

Finally, he gradually increased the complexity of the vocalizations as Jeff’s skill increased.  This allowed Jeff to be always working in that “zone of proximal development” or, said another way, always stretching outside of his comfort zone.

Jeff himself thought that evening was powerful because his friend made a game of it and made it fun.  But I don’t think Michael Glownia made that evening fun.  I think Jeff’s brain did.  Jeff came to that session already with a growth mindset and with ignition—that powerful desire to get better.  Michael helped him practice really effectively by creating the right conditions.  The fun came because there was no fear of failure and Jeff’s brain reliably supplied dopamine every time he struggled and then succeeded.

Jeff Pagano 2

Lance Lisenby was another musician who helped Jeff move up the learning curve.  Jeff speaks of Lance with such love and admiration in his voice.  He said that Lance was one of those people who was always encouraging other musicians regardless of how skilled they currently were.

“He always was a very positive person.  Especially with musicians.  He always wanted to make sure musicians had an opportunity to share their talent at whatever stage they were at in their talent.  For example, he’d bring up Carl to play drums.  And Carl, at the time when we knew him, was a terrible drummer. He loved to drum, but he couldn’t keep beat or pay attention—it was just awful.  But, he loved to drum.  He loved to collect the equipment.  And to Carl’s credit, he really kept at it.  He didn’t quit.  And Lance would keep bringing him up.  And when we were playing together, he’d call Carl, and we’d say, “Yeah, let’s do it.  We know that he is on a path and let’s encourage that.”  And with every musician that I know of that Lance was involved with he always said, “You can do this.  I can see the desire in you.  Have faith in yourself.  Have confidence in yourself.”

Lance and Jeff performed as an acoustic duo in Colorado Springs for about five years.  Lance would play guitar and both of them would sing.

It was during this time that Lance taught Jeff another really valuable lesson about performing.

“I had just started singing with him.  Sometimes I would forget the words.  That’s still a problem that I have sometimes because I get nervous.  We had played at one of our favorite places, the U-Pass Tavern in Woodland Park, Colorado.  And afterwards someone had come up and he was talking to Lance about it and he was complementing me.  He said, “Wow.  Your voice sounds great.  I really love your song selection.” And I interject with, “Yeah, but on the third song, in the second verse, I forgot…” and I started going through my laundry list of mistakes that I had made in my head.  And Lance very gently cut me off and thanked the guy for his complement.

And as he walked away, Lance turned to me and said, “I understand.  We’ve all got the list of things that we didn’t do right.  But, when someone gives you a complement.  Smile.  Look them in the eye and say ‘Thank you’.  Turn off all that other stuff that’s running through your head about what you need to fix and what you did right.  Because you’re just bringing that other person down.  They’ve got all this enthusiasm and gratitude.  Don’t bring them down.  Smile.  Look them in the eye and say, ‘Thank you’.”

And that was a lesson that Lance taught me that I have never forgotten and I’ve actually shared that with other people as well.”

 

Another important teacher in Jeff’s life was his friend Alex Ogburn.  Jeff and Alex met at the gym in Sedona, Arizona.  At first, Jeff didn’t realize that Alex was a musician until one night he invited Jeff to a show.  It turned out Alex was a professional musician and a “phenomenal” guitarist.  Alex started an open mike night at a martini bar in Sedona.  Jeff decided that this was the perfect place to make his debut as a public performer as singer and guitarist.

“He was a professional musician at the time.  He would do shows all over Sedona for his living.  And since he was a friend of mine, he and I would talk about music a lot.  He decided to start doing an open mike at the Martini Bar in Sedona which is a great little venue.  And I practiced and practiced and practiced.  And I set a goal in my mind that I was going to start doing open mikes because I had been through a progression where it was me and the dog on the sofa at home, and then one other person in the room, then Michael taught me I could sing, and then I could sing for small groups in the living rooms of my home and other homes, and then it was get together for jam sessions with the musicians on the back porch and that was really intimidating.  I kind of wished that I had had someone to hold my hand and guide me through that process, but a mentor didn’t appear.

So the next level for me was performing in public and that was doing open mikes.  By that time, I believe, I’d been playing for about five years.  And Alex was my friend.  It was a safe place to go.  He was the host of the open mike.  It set my mind at ease.

I practiced for three months.  I just worked on two or three songs.  I was gonna go do an open mike.

At the first open mike, I did a song.  I couldn’t remember the words.  I couldn’t remember the chords.  I was so nervous.  I just completely destroyed the song.  My first song was just absolutely wretched.  And the second song wasn’t too bad and after that I pulled the plug and said, “Thank you.”

I got off stage and I remember the conversation.  I was standing at the bar next to Alex while the next guy was performing.  I had my guitar in my hand and I was putting it away.

Alex walks up and holds up his hand in that ‘stop’ motion and he says, “I know what you’re going to say.  Don’t say it.” and I start to say, “Yeah, but…” and he says, “I know what you’re going to say.  Just promise me you’ll come back next week.” and I go, “But, I…” and he says, “I know.  I know.  Just promise me you’ll come back next week. Promise.”

And I said, “I promise.  That’s not a maybe, that’s a promise.  I’m going to be here.”

And so I showed up the next week.  And I practiced playing the guitar every single day for that whole week.  I was horrified by my performance.  So I was like, “Okay, that’s not going to happen again.”

So, I showed up the next time.  And I can’t actually remember how that second performance went, but I know that I became a regular on the open mike circuit.  I got to know a lot of musicians like the people that worked at the Martini Bar because I was always there.  I would show up.  I would invite friends to come.

And by the end of that summer, when it was time for me to leave Sedona and come back to Eugene, I was at the open mike and Lance got a text and he said, “Oh.  I’ve got to go.  Jeff, do you mind?  Could you just run this?  Could you just play a bunch of songs and if anybody comes in that wants to play let them play?”

So I was like, “Sure.”

So, I sat up on stage with my song book and I played four or five songs.  And this girl came in that wanted to play.  And I’m like, “Oh Hey.  Here’s Heather.  She’s going to play some songs.”  And she played some songs and then I got back up on stage.

And, I got over that hurdle of the open mike and performing in public.”

 

This story resonated strongly with me.

Years ago, I gathered up my courage and stepped out on to a stage in Alaska and sang my song.  And everyone kept drinking their beer and talking and laughing instead of leaning in and listening like my friends did when I sang for them.  I wanted to disappear.  I was horrified.  I never wanted to feel that feeling again.

In that moment, I made up a very unhelpful story about who I was as a singer and what kind of courage I possessed.  I did not have an Alex in my corner.  I didn’t have anybody telling me that failing didn’t mean you don’t have what it takes—that it just means you need to try again.  That it just means you need to show up next week.  And I didn’t show up the next week, or the next month, or the next year.  I haven’t sung in public since that night.

So, as a teacher, now that I know about how learning works, I am passionate about ensuring that the message that the brain learns from failure goes out loud and clear.  I aim to be an Alex.  I aim to keep asking others to promise to show up.  To come back next week.

Jeff Pagano 3

The final teacher that Jeff shared about was Marty Chilla.  Marty is the acoustic guitar player in a Eugene band called the Sugar Beets.  He is also one of the few formal instructors in Jeff’s musical journey.

“He is a fantastic music instructor.  I took lessons with Marty—which is kind of a strange way to put it because when you sit down with Marty you’re not really taking a lesson, you’re playing music with a friend.  And he and I talked about songwriting.

I haven’t fully explored my songwriting.  I’ve only written about a half dozen songs and there aren’t any that I really feel comfortable sharing because some are really sad and are personal or are about something in my life.

But Marty taught me.  He said, “Whatever you create is whatever you create.  Don’t put any expectations on it.”

He said, “Why don’t we just start with a lullaby—something really simple.  Just go home this week and just write a lullaby.  It doesn’t have to be good.  Who cares if it’s bad.  Anything that you do—it’s just yours.  So just completely release any thoughts of judgement, because that’s what stops you from creating.”

So, that was a really powerful lesson that Marty engrained in me.  Just be free.  Be yourself.  Do things that are really simple.  Turn the judgement off.  And have fun!

And I came back the next week with a lullaby.

I haven’t really taken to songwriting.  Only because that genii isn’t out of the bottle yet.  But there will be a time when I do start writing.  And, I’ve already got songs in my head and I’ve already got songs that are half written.

But, it’s okay that I’m not writing my own songs at this point.  I think that my next adventure is to be the guy that is the music at the winery that people go visit on a Sunday afternoon and I do James Taylor and really fun sing-along songs for them.  No one’s paid me to actually sit on a bar stool in their pub and be the entertainment—as least not as a solo performer.”

 

So that was what Jeff is taking on next.  Learning how to become a paid solo performer.  So he organized a concert.  He invited his friends and pushed himself to step outside of his comfort zone once again to help prepare himself to take the next step in his quest to become a professional musician.

 

I asked Jeff if there was any time when he felt stopped or scared of taking the next step.

“I never felt stopped, but I certainly have had many times where I felt stagnated, where I wasn’t moving forward and everything that I did sounded the same.  And, as you know, when you go through a learning process with something like this, which is a lifelong learning process, you have plateaus where you have these great increases in learning and knowledge and then it levels off and there is nothing really new or significant happening.

I remember this great, great answer that my buddy Lance gave me onetime.  I said to him, “I can’t wait until I get really, really good at playing guitar.”

And Lance said, “Me too.”

And, you know, Lance is really the most phenomenal guitar player on the planet as far as I was concerned.

But, it is a lifelong learning process—something like this.

And I would say, for me, when I got to those plateaus, they’re definitely frustrating.  I might go out and look for a new music teacher—someone that might inspire me.  Or I might try to sit down and tackle some of the videos that I’ve saved on YouTube.  It’s like, okay, here’s something that I want to learn.  But, most often, if I’m in a plateau, what will happen is I’ll sit there for just an unbearably long time and then something will pop out at me that will be so inspirational that I’ll go, “Oh my gosh.  I have to learn this song.”

And the song that I did towards the end of the set that was really soft and I finger picked some strums, was a song called This Town.  And it’s such a beautiful song.  As soon as I heard it, I immediately gravitated toward it.  And as a musician, I had to listen to it a thousand times before I could pick up the guitar and try to play it.

And I realized I couldn’t really do justice to the song by just strumming the chords. So, what happened out of desire to be able to play the song.  I’m like, “I really love this song.  I really need to play this song.  It doesn’t sound right with me just strumming through these four chords.  I’m going to keep toying with this music in different ways.”

And sometimes it just meant hitting the off-switch on trying and sitting on the sofa watching football while I’m absent mindedly strumming the chords.

And for that particular song, I was absolutely at a plateau.  I hadn’t done anything new  or different with my music in months.  I was completely stagnant.

And for some reason, somehow, my fingers found this way to pluck the strings rather than strum the chords.  And so, I found a way to finger pick that song.  And I even had to change where the chords are in the song.

If you listen to the original, he’s not playing the same chord that I’m playing during certain verses because I had to change the songs chords to make it fit how I sang or what sounded great for my ears.  So, I probably worked on that song for three weeks.

That was definitely another breakthrough for me—a next level experience.  And I didn’t know it until I played it in my house and Joseph said, “Wow.  You’ve just evolved.  I’ve just witnessed the evolution of you as a player and a singer.”

So, thank you Jeff Pagano.  Thank you for sharing your music with the world.  Thank you for being a lifelong learner.  Thank you for sharing your learning journey with us and for  inspiring people like me, who still feel like we have a song to sing, to keep the dream of becoming musical alive no matter how old we are.  Cheers.

(Gary Marcus, by the way, for all that he started with less musical skill than Jeff started with, also succeeded in transforming himself into a musician and a songwriter.)