The maze – on teaching, failing and getting closer to the way through

This article is about holding true to a principle, even when it fails and how trying and failing will only get us closer to doing better.

“We simply must do better” – David Price, The Power of Us.

The maze analogy

When you are stuck in a maze there is only one way out. You can either turn back and follow the stones or footsteps behind you (the well-worn and familiar path) or you can press on and know that part of finding the way out is first encountering many dead ends. In teaching, coming to a dead end can be disheartening. You try something and it doesn’t take off, it doesn’t fly and you are left with your head against a wall. But another way of looking at it, within this maze analogy, is that you are one path closer to finding a path that leads out. Each dead end is actually a vital part of the mapping of the maze and the finding of the way out cannot be found without first finding all the ‘not ways out’. If we can apply the maze analogy to teaching, my hope is that it is heartening – that we must keep on trying.

I am currently teaching ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ by Mark Haddon (it is one of my favourite books of all time for multiple reasons) and the neuro-divergent main character, Christopher, makes his way through a ‘maze’ of being lost. I always like it when something that I am pursuing pedagogically is mirrored in literature studies in the classroom. When the protagonist, Christopher Boone, finds himself lost when looking for the train station he chooses to adopt an algorithm to find his way. He chooses to walk in a spiral pattern and use trial and error to find his destination. He uses a spiral heuristic to find his way. (The wall-following algorithm would also work in a maze supposing that all of the walls are connected). The interesting take away from this algorithmic thinking and the maze analogy is that, provided we stay the course (i.e, adopt a spiral methodology, use the wall-following methodology) the algorithm we hold fast to will eventually lead us to a path out.

Now that is a bit inspiring. Don’t you think?

Maze Labyrinth Puzzle - Free image on Pixabay

The maze is a metaphor of hope in that if we are exploring something, wanting to break through to something or needing to break out of something. We just have to keep going.

Dead ends in coding

In coding or any debugging experimentation, each wrong answer lends itself to being one step closer to being right. If using Boolean logic or this or that systems, each ‘this’ that is wrong means that ‘that’ could be closer to being right. Each new combination that is tried and fails means that the next combination is closer to being correct. Mistakes are part of the way forward. Interestingly, if you look at the top ten most common programming and coding errors, they can be nicely applied to teaching and learning too. The main lesson here is that we have to fail in order to succeed. When I am feeling disheartened about a change that I am pursuing, or a strategy that is not sticking, it is helpful to keep this in mind. I just need to stay the course and keep debugging (looking for mistakes so that I can rectify them).

Logging mistakes

What do mistakes look like in teaching and how can we catch them? Year one teachers are good at keeping journals and lesson reflections because they have to in order to be signed off. My open wondering is why that important reflection process drops off with busy-ness in later years. When carpooling with colleagues, some of the most valuable conversations have been had where we talk about what we tried, how we failed, and how we might try again. If you don’t share a car journey with someone to bounce ideas off with, how else could you record the bouncing thoughts that could be one step closer to getting through that maze? My future blog roll is full of notes where I write in bullet points in ‘Notes’ on my phone. I have the title of my reflection and then some triggers to help me put my thoughts into writing and I capture them for deeper reflection and writing when I find some time later. For me, writing about my failures as much as my successes has been really valuable. Further, I have modeled open reflection when I have put my ‘tryings and failings’ up for discussion at Emerging Leaders Kahui Ako (community of learning) events. It feels brave to openly talk about ‘errors’ or ‘failure’, but my hope is that it is encouraging collaboration to see and fix potentially common mistakes. Mistakes are not failings. They are useful dead ends that can illuminate a way through.

The rule of three

When I first started teaching, I taught English and Art and a Boy’s High School. I remember struggling with some lower ability boys with literacy. I was told that I need to teach the same thing in three ways before it would stick. Beyond read-retrieve-apply types of learning, I had fun ‘disguising’ the learning in three different activities. The learning outcome for each was the same, but the pathway into and the experience of the learning was quite different. At the time, VARK learning styles were ‘in’ so my strategies were literal, kinesthetic and visual (for example) but the rule of three outside of learning preferences has become ingrained in my teaching practice. If I can teach it one way – how can I teach it in another way – and another way again? If I can get through the maze with the spiral method, how might I use aerial mapping, how might I apply digital tools, how might I improve the wall-following method? Doing something once, even if not necessarily a failure, is not an indication that it is done. Doing it again and differently could lead to something even better.

On Paragraphing

Teaching paragraphing is one of the things that I have been reflecting on for needing to find different ‘ways in’. Some teachers use the SEXY acronym, SEE, PEE, TEE, TEEL, PEEL and SEQUEL are various acronyms I have come across (even with the same school which must be confusing for students). My strategy is to teach it several different ways – and then reveal the magic trick – that it is all the same! I find it perplexing that students are taught paragraphing every year and somehow still don’t know the rules when they get to their senior years. Is the failing on the teacher? Or on the processes they have been exposed to? Could it be that they needed time to explore dead ends together in order to find their own way through for mastery? The link to the maze analogy here is through a student’s lens. We are in the ‘paragraph maze’ but they need to try paragraphing using different tools, encountering different dead ends before finally arriving on one that clicks (for them as individuals). For my teaching lens, the maze perseverance filter applies because I am never finished. Just because I can already teach a paragraph or have found success using a particular method of paragraph teaching does not mean that I should not still pursue more and better paragraph teaching models – I have not yet reached an end point. Perhaps it is a bit like Plato’s cave. We teach in the shadows but need to keep trying to get to the true/truest form. Plato’s allegory of the cave is an experiment in epistemology and definitions of ‘the truth’. Teaching anything is also the study of epistemology (the study of knowledge). We have to keep finding untrue things in order to take steps closer to the ‘true’ thing. And, paradoxically, the true thing keeps shifting. So we have to keep trying new paths to find it.

The four square paragraph

The four-part paragraph box was a template I found on Pinterest which visually represents the parts of a paragraph. It was designed for primary students. I used it with my class and we discussed whether or not it was useful. Previously we had used the hamburger model, the sandwich model and the circle structure. Some students said they found the four part box paragraph model confusing. I redrew it as a circle and relabeled the parts as the SEQUEL acronym (which seems to be their favourite – statement, example, quote, what you think, explanation, link to topic or question). The ‘aha’ moment was closer because we were able to discuss what didn’t work for them with the four square model. Deliberately exploring what didn’t work brought us closer to something that did work. And I went home and reflected – we are a step closer to understanding ‘paragraphness’ because we explored a new paragraph dead end. That was my ‘Aha’ moment. The key finding for me was that I was not to know that the four square praragraph model was not going to work. But I tried it anyway.

Walking on

I find writing and sharing my thoughts helpful to give form to my ideas. I like trying new things. I like having a blog as a place to share my thinking. I like reading about people who are doing new and exciting things that lead to (seeming) dead ends. I like exploring dead ends and wondering about new possibilities that are presented for meaningful change. If we keep walking the paths we have already trodden, we will never get anywhere, and will only go backwards.

I enjoy having conversations with other people who want to do better.

We simply must do better.

Let’s keep trying and failing forwards together.

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