I was standing at the back of a Year 5 class in Geelong, Australia, and the students were doing a project on a classic Australian poem, The Man from Snowy River, about a brave rider chasing a group of wild horses across the mountains. The students had to draw the horses, and one girl in the back row was refusing to do so. She said to me forlornly “I don’t know how to draw a horse.” “Just have a go,” I said encouragingly, but she wouldn’t. It became clear she was terrified of producing something that wasn’t good enough. She had a bad case of Equine Fixed Mindset, or in this case, Bright Girl Syndrome. It had to be good first time, and if that wasn’t possible, she wouldn’t do it at all.
I had an idea. “Could you do something for me,” I said. “Could you draw me a bad horse? One that is all wobbly and out of proportion. Draw me a really good bad horse.” She looked at me with astonishment, and let out a small rather hysterical giggle. Her pencil hovered over the paper – but still it wouldn’t draw. She was in a real fix. To please the visitor in the suit, she had to produce exactly the drawing that she was afraid to. She was like a racing car, revving up on the starting line, but with the brake still on.
Her friends either side of her thought the idea of drawing bad horses sounded quite fun, and soon the word spread and the whole class was bringing me their drawing of horses with three heads, or different length legs, or spiky manes like a dragon. Eventually – with her heart in her mouth – the girl’s pencil moved on the paper, and she drew a very small horse that looked like a mouse. She looked up at me, her eyes big, waiting to see if I was going to change my tune and deliver the reaction she dreaded. “Not bad,” I said. “Could you make it a bit badder?” And she said OK and set too – still giggling nervously to herself.
In my terms, her friends and I had managed to shift her, albeit temporarily, from being in Performance Mode, where her job was to get a good judgement and avoid a bad, to Learning Mode, where her job was to take the plunge, give it a go, reflect and get better. We can only wonder where her fear of failure came from; but I’d like to think that her teacher, eavesdropping on the disruption we had caused, could see the benefit, and think how to make her classroom a safer place for learners in the future. Maybe see that playfulness can be a serious component of a learning power classroom. Anyway, I like to think that together, just for a moment, we had unleashed a young perfectionist’s willingness to be a learner, and to see that drawing bad horses is a fun way to discover how to draw good ones.