Failing Forward in Fencing


I read a couple interesting anecdotes today in the book Failing Forward by John Maxwll. The first comes from two working artists, David Bayles and Ted Orland, who tell a story about an art teacher who did an experiment with the grading system he used for two groups of students:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group vein graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work–and learning from their mistakes–the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

The other from a trapeze performer:

Once you know that the net below will catch you, you stop worrying about falling. You actually learn to fall successfully! What that means is, you can concentrate on catching the trapeze swinging toward you, and not on falling, because repeated falls in the past have convinced you that the net is strong and reliable when you do fall… The result of falling and being caught by the net is a mysterious confidence and daring on the trapeze. You fall less. Each fall makes you able to risk more.

I thought both of these stories were interesting to relate back to fencing and grading. It can be disheartening to go to a test and fail at it. In some martial arts they don’t let their students fail at exams at all. The exams are either meaningless or they only let people go for them when they’re sure to pass. Their students build no resiliency to failure and I think become more fragile because of it and thus less able to learn and advance at their art and in life in general.

Both stories made me wonder about how to teach people at Duello to embrace failure and struggle more readily in their practice. I know many students comment to me that they avoid Open Floor or assessment or testing because they’re afraid of failing. Could we create some kind of exercise or environment where failing is mandatory and thus take some of the sting out of it and help us all build a little more resiliency? Tell me what you think.

devonboorman Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
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