Fear of Failure
"I'm afraid I'll fail, I'm afraid I will fail my students. I really just don't know where to start."
Dani Nyffler, a sixth grade teacher in our district, made that statement and then continued talking excitedly about a project we were planning. Her words clouded my thoughts, and I struggled listening to her as I started reflecting on her statement.
I would identify Dani as an early adopter, innovator, risk taker, whatever word you want to label the teacher you love to work with that is excited to learn and try new ideas. I had approached Dani to work with me on designing a project wrapped around my learning in the book, "Hacking Project Based Learning", by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy. I wanted to apply some of my new ideas directly in a classroom and knew Dani was a great choice. She had already transformed the physical space of her class with flexible seating, allowing her students to help design the environment. She was closely reflecting on her teaching practice as a member of our district's Instructional Technology Leadership Endorsement Program. She had happily agreed to plan a project with me, started reading the book, and we carved out time to start meeting so we could plan out at least one project before the end of the school year.
Her concerns of failure stopped me in my tracks because I completely understood why she felt that way, and the fact that I was uncertain myself of where to start. I think both of our fears stemmed from knowing that true Project Based Learning (PBL) can be effective and powerful if done right, but could also go the other direction if not planned out. We had both created "projects" with our students in the past, but now we were armed with just enough information to know that there are better ways to meet student needs through PBL. We were looking to do it in the best way. We were both afraid of the unknown. I consider us both open to new ideas and taking risks, but how about the educators out there that aren't as open to change? Will they allow themselves to take risks?
Why take Risks with Students
George Couros shared what Innovation Is and Isn't, "To simplify the notion of innovation, it is something that is both new (either invention or iteration) and better. Innovation is not about the “stuff”, but about a way of thinking."
The words, something that is new and better, is the key to this. I feel as educators, and in general any human, should be looking towards new and better ways to keep growing. As our world keeps moving forward, so should our educational practices. Looking for innovation in our classroom can be modeled by the teacher and continued on as students. Being transparent with your students when you are trying something new, feeling uncomfortable, learning yourself, and sometimes failing and then reflecting for improvement is an essential success skill to instill in students.
When you make changes or choose to be innovative there is always a level of risk involved. How do you determine what is worth the risk? When we are responsible for the growth of students, how do we make responsible risks towards innovation? How do we ensure parents, administrators, and other teachers that the risk is worth taking?
Levels of Risk Taking
I have a six year old son, Chase, who takes on new ideas very cautiously. My two year old boy, McKennon, on the opposite end, makes irrational risks which can lead towards danger at times. Some say it is a first born vs. second born trait, but I also think it is strongly connected to their personality type. One example of the many differences in their risk taking disposition was evident on a recent trip to a new playground. If interested you can view the videos below, but in summary you will see my oldest son carefully planning out his attempts on the equipment, wanting me there for support and to watch him. Every new attempt had a layer of fear in his voice, but as a kid he was still willing to try. In the background is his younger brother, who he nicknamed, "chaos", trying everything even beyond what he should. Fear never seems to enter his thoughts, but is constantly on my mind when he is out in the open. I often times was running over to keep him from leaping off of the six foot high edge. This scenario mirrors their bike riding, interactions in public areas like the zoo, swimming, and more.
My oldest son has always been careful about anything that seemed new. I have to push him to try something risky, like this week, a back flip at swim lessons. By the way, once he did one he loved it! How can we support educators with a similar disposition as him and especially those that feel no need to change what has "always worked". They stay stagnant and comfortable, but miss out on opportunities to move forward and in turn move students forward or foster an innovative mindset. How can we take a teacher, similar to my youngest son, that dives in head first to any new idea in the education world, quickly implements each one without much reflection on the effectiveness, and sometimes creates more chaos than growth? Somewhere between my two boys is a balance towards responsible risk taking.
Responsible Risk Taking
I thought back on Dani's fear of failure as we attempted Project Based Learning. I reflected on successful risk taking I have experienced or supported others through and recognize some key components towards risk taking. The steps below can help individuals and schools strategically plan for innovation to ensure success.
Wait, don't leave me here, don't nod off on this one. I'm not talking about deep educational research, unless the risk warrants it. I mean the type of research where you determine why you need to take the risk. Is there something in your current practice that could be improved upon? The type of research where you look for resources to help guide before you start. Has anyone tried this new idea that you can learn from? Can you prepare yourself before taking the risk by identifying the advantages and disadvantages? Don't spend too much time and energy on this one that you find yourself never getting to the next more important step. Some of the greatest learning experiences have come from a teacher moving forward even if they were not comfortable.
Plan and implement the change or new idea. This can be daunting depending on the breadth of the risk. We often want to wait until everything is well thought out and you are sure of success. In my case of biting off Project Based Learning with Dani we were not sure how to start because we wanted to try and do so much. We wanted to design the most amazing and powerful project using all of the ideas we had learned in the book. We needed to break our goals into smaller chunks. We could start with a project and focus on 2-3 core ideas behind Project Based Learning and continue to build on it as we did more. I love this idea as an approach to taking risks that seem hard to start from the post, "Elon Musk: The Secret Behind His Insane Drive."
How often do you take time to do this? I know it is one area that once I'm done with the learning activity it gets pushed aside. If it is a new idea you are implementing, take the time to truly reflect on the value. Consider the Return on Investment (ROI) to help determine if it is worth the risk or if it just needs to be tweaked. Was your new idea worth the time? Did the students learn better? Did it teach them any new success skills? This reflection should not include only the teacher's inner thoughts of how it went. Get feedback from the students on whether it enhanced their learning or helped them grow in some way. Ask for ideas of how it could have worked better. If it was a large risk there is a good chance you have some type of data you can analyze over a period of time to see if it is working. If the Return on Investment is not high, perhaps you don't need to add it into your practice or need to make adjustments.
Once you have reflected move into enhancing the idea for the next time. I worked with two middle school teachers that embarked on their first endeavor with Project Based Learning. They jumped into the project quickly as time was against them, and they were uncertain how successful it would be. Overall it was a great opportunity for student learning, but the best learning came from the teachers. They sat down with me to reflect on the project and were amazed by what some of the students produced. They also had ideas of what they needed to change for the next time. Experiencing the new idea was just as important as reading a book about it. The continual growth of the teacher is just as important as the student in this process. This is a crucial skill to model and teach students.
Being an innovative teacher or leader alone is not enough. The end goal should be to spread the mindset to others which will add to the innovative culture of a school. This all comes back to relationships. This needs to be the central core to anything a person is embarking on including responsible risk taking. When risk taking you can build relationships by:
Share in the comments your own experiences and tips for risk taking. What could you add to my suggestions above?
Mother, wife, teacher, learner, information seeker, outdoor lover, & I guess now a novice blogger.