Thursday, May 31, 2012

Teachers risking failure: What is often left out of the conversation and how to address it

There is no shortage of videos and articles expressing the need to create an environment that does not fear failure in order to accomplish great things.  Some of these even speak directly to educators with the hope that teachers will nurture such an environment for their students.  I agree with many of these ideas, but I find that the conversation about eliminating the fear of failure in schools seems to be missing an important piece.

Examples of overcoming fear of failure often include very inspirational concepts that are tested in labs under controlled environments.  Why do you think new aircraft are tested in unpopulated areas?  Sure, there is security involved, but there is also a safety net built in.  After all, if the experimental plane fails in the desert or falls into the ocean, the liability for the failure is limited.  If such a craft was tested over a major city and failed, then you may have an enormous problem.

Limiting liability helps allow us to take chances.  If you want to eliminate fear of failure, you need to limit your liability.  By limiting liability, you can measure progress without fear of catastrophe.

To clarify, I'm not speaking of liability in the legal sense (though that too is important).  I'm speaking of liability as the potential for less than perfect results to cause an disproportionate level of damage to your credibility and effectiveness as a teacher.

This is where the concept of risk taking in schools becomes muddled.

For a classroom teacher, there is no lab.  If you try something new and it works, great.  If it doesn't, your experimental jet just crashed in the middle of your city.  

Therefore, a key component to trying something new and risking failure in class is to determine what aspects of the environment you have control over and exercise controls that limit liability.

Here are a few suggestions about how you, as a teacher, can limit your liability when trying new things and risking failure.

1.  No grades

For many students (and their families), the most important result of any class is the grade.  Risking failure with an activity that affects the grade is akin to high stakes gambling for those who value grades over everything else.  If you take grades off the table, you are now gambling with play money.  No risk of real loss for the student and no risk of grades taking attention away from the work at hand.

2.  Self-grading

If you must assign a grade, try having the students grade themselves.  If you do this, provide clear and specific instructions or a rubric to help students make an informed decision about the grade.

3.  Flip the grading

When you flip the grading, students grade the lesson...and your delivery.  This can be very helpful if you also ask students to write comments explaining their rating and how to improve the lesson next time.

4.  Include administration

Some of you may hesitate to bring your administrator into the loop before the lesson for fear of not being supported.  However, if you have a solid plan backed by sound reasoning and are well prepared, your administrator shouldn't have much of a reason to get in your way.  So why include her up front?  There are two reasons.  First, I have yet to meet an administrator that likes unpleasant surprises, and if you are trying something new, there is always a chance that it may not go exactly as planned.  Having an informed administrator is always better than one who is caught off  guard.  Second, believe it or not, administrators have great ideas too!  If you talk about your idea with them while planning, you may glean some wisdom that could help your lesson be even more effective.

5.  Collaborate

The old saying, "There is strength in numbers" applies here also.  By collaborating with another teacher to try something new, you gain the strength of working with another person and also the benefit of your collective wisdom can bring to the planning of the lesson.  Similarly, by collaborating, you can "divide and conquer" the work and also do a peer review of each other's class.

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