Beyond the Blisters: Reaching the Sweet Music of Empowered Learners

There Must Be Some Kind of Way Outta Here

As educators, we spend a lot of time telling each other, our students, and ourselves that failure is good. We learn from failing. We encourage students to keep at it, to not give up, to finish the effort.  Some of us even model that sometimes, so that we can show students that risk taking is okay, necessary, and totally worth it. And then, we educators look at a new idea, a way to empower our students, a system that get’s them in the driver’s seat of their own learning, and we back away slowly in fear…of failing…of failure.

Said The Joker to the Thief

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Kevin Honeycutt deliver a keynote address at a tech conference where I was presenting, and he said something that has resonated with me strongly ever since and it applies to failing and failure in life, in education, and in any endeavor we humans set out to accomplish. He was talking about guitar lessons and stated that most students quit at exactly the same point when learning to play the guitar. They stop when they get blisters. This happens before they get to hear and experience the beauty of the music they can make with the guitar. It’s too early on in the process of learning, and it hurts.

There’s Too Much Confusion

An experienced guitar player has developed hand strength and callouses, but even then, if playing the guitar for several hours, the fingers will still hurt. The blisters may not appear at that point, but the pain resurfaces. I discussed this with my husband, who plays lead guitar for our band (I sing with two other guys), and he has been playing the guitar since he was a teenager. He has been playing regularly and seriously for the last seven years. It is still hard work, and there are still times when his fingers experience pain. Doing anything worth while is work and does have painful periods, but we must push past the blisters.

I Can’t Get No Relief

I can see that setting up your classroom where students come up with the projects that are authentic, have an audience, and that matter to others, can be a point of blisters for many teachers. How in the world can my students learn if I am not the one in control? I’m trained! I’m educated! I know what I’m doing! Can you hear the panic set in as you contemplate this switch from engagement to empowerment? Deep breath. Push past those blisters. Take it one guitar lesson at a time.

All Along the Watchtower

My husband said that the first two weeks of learning to play the guitar are the absolute hardest. The first time you grip the fret board and your fingertips meet the strings, there will be pain. There’s a certain amount of hand strength required to grip the fret board and press on the string hard enough to ring out clearly. A new player will struggle to play the chords clearly because of lack of strength, because of the pain. There are decisions to make at that point. For a beginning guitar player, a level of commitment is crucial to success. It won’t always hurt. There will always be times of pain, but they pass. The music is the goal, and it’s worth all of the pain, blisters, and hard work.

And the Wind Began to Howl

So if empowerment is the goal, then as educators we need to be ready to push past the pain, the blisters, if we are to make the music of learning a beautiful thing in our classrooms, buildings, and districts. Sure, it’s hard. It takes work. It takes a strength of commitment to grip the strings and fret board of student learning. It takes strength of grip to let go of control and putting students in the driver’s seat. When we see fail-ING clearly and hear the clouded chords of our efforts, but still push past the blisters and pain until we can grip the fret board and press on the strings with enough strength to play the clear chords of student empowered learning, then we know. We know what amazing music we can make with our students from the passenger seat. Don’t stop at the blisters. That’s Fail-URE. Keep playing. Keep practicing. Baby steps or leaps, whichever suits you, but do it. Let go. You’ve got this.

Partial lyrics from All Along The Watch Tower by Bob Dylan, as played by Jimi Hendrix (in my head).

3 thoughts on “Beyond the Blisters: Reaching the Sweet Music of Empowered Learners

  1. Hi Laura,
    I love your phrase “push past the blisters.” — what a perfect analogy! We do need to allow ourselves and our students to become uncomfortable to grow – as Couros says, “Our job as educators and leaders is not to control others but to bring out the best in them.” #IMMOOC #EDCI325


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