Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, often discusses the importance of experiencing failure in the learning process. Trial and error, he argues, inevitably involves error. How can we learn from our mistakes if we are never in a position to make a mistake? He cites real world examples from companies who follow this philosophy and post signs like “Fail early and fail often” and “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried” around the building. There is no innovation, Wagner says, without trial and error, and there cannot be trial and error if students are afraid of error.
But what about our teachers? What is the role of risk-taking, adaptability, resilience, and even “failure” for them. How can they be models for their students in cultivating these dispositions while also benefiting, themselves, from a culture that embraces these qualities.
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Through proactively and consciously building a transparent, open culture in classrooms and within the walls of the school, teachers can feel safe to take risks and adapt to the outcomes and to create the kind of classroom community where students feel comfortable doing the same. Some way of setting this culture include:
- Sharing stories with kids about times of resilience and adaptability in their own lives. Students look to their teachers as exemplars and role models in a way they do with few other adults in their lives. When teachers are able to open up and share with their students about a time when they showed resilience, risk taking, and adaptability, they are able to create a safe space in their classrooms for their students to do the same. This kind of conversation could take place informally such as during a conversation on a Monday morning about the weekend, “I went rock climbing and tried a more challenging route and totally got knocked off of the wall a few times. It was pretty embarrassing at first, but then I made it a personal challenge and eventually made it to the top” or during a structured time built into the week to share (and celebrate) times of risk taking.
- Change up lesson plans and units based on the specific needs and interests of the students and talk to the students how that plays a role. There’s a saying in education that goes something like, “Good teachers teach students, not curriculum,” which makes sense in theory and is much more challenging in reality. Curriculum is consistent and predictable; students are neither. Teaching curriculum requires advanced planning and consistency; teaching students requires adaptability and flexibility. As such, openly differentiating for students through adjusting lessons and units can be a great way to model adaptability and resilience for the students. Sharing something like, “We were going to delve into chapter four today, but, based on yesterday’s conversation, some of us are going to review parts of chapter three and others are going to look a bit more deeply at this one part of a different text. Also, a few of you were really interested in the science behind our conversation, so we’re going to explore that a bit too” shows that the teacher really cares about the students and adapts to what is best for them.
- Be open and transparent with students when trying something new and soliciting feedback from students, modeling risk taking and being open to iteration. Trying something new in the classroom can be scary, but teachers take the risk for the sake of what they view as being best for their students. Additionally, they are often taking advantage of an opportunity to learn and grow themselves. Some of the discomfort and fear can be taken out of the situation by sharing this with the students. When trying something new, a teacher could start the class with something like, “I know we’ve never done this before, but I’m trying something new. My goal is to get you guys to think about this text in a different way, and I am going to ask you afterwards how effective you think it was.” Being honest in this way sets the tone for the class and establishes a culture of trust and mutual respect, providing a safe space for that risk-taking.
- Share with students when something did not work in the class and have them help think through next steps. Students are incredibly perceptive about the world around them and also really appreciate when teachers are open and transparent with them. Additionally, through the process of school, students should be becoming more self-aware about themselves as learners. As such, having a conversation with students about a specific lesson that did not go as planned and/or did not prove to be as effective as hoped can be incredibly beneficial. Not only can this kind of open dialogue build trust between the teacher and students, but it also contributes to creating that safe classroom culture. If students recognize that “failure” is actually an opportunity for learning rather than a final verdict, they will be much more likely to engage in the process.
- Utilize formative assessment and share with students how that directs the instruction and changes the plans. Classrooms that maximize growth and learning utilize a variety of assessment tools, making use not only of summative assessments measures to gauge learning at the end of a unit, but also formative assessment tool to gather information about learning over the course of the unit. If the formative assessment measures show that students are not mastering the content and/or skills in the desired way, it is the teacher’s responsibility to redirect the learning in a more effective way through reteaching material in a different way, trying different approaches, and differentiating the learning in order to ensure that all students are getting what they need. By being transparent about this process, teachers can model adaptability and resilience, showing students that even the teacher had to adjust and make changes based on what was not working. Not only does this show the students the investment and commitment the teacher has to the learning and success of each individual student, but it sets an expectation for the class related to adaptability and resilience.
- Engage in instructional rounds where teachers observe other teachers trying something new. Instructional rounds is a process through which teachers are able to observe the teaching and learning happening at a school outside of their classroom. While the goal of instructional rounds is not necessarily to provide feedback to the teacher being observed and, rather, focuses on allowing teachers to compare their own practice that that of the teachers they observe, it can be a mutually beneficial experience. In this particular context, instructional rounds can be used to highlight teachers who are trying something new in their classrooms, setting the tone for a culture of risk taking amongst the faculty. In the debrief that follows the classroom visit, the observed teachers could talk about their process, what was it like to try something new? What went well? What did not go as planned? How would you adapt the lesson for next time?
- Build resilience and adaptability into the teaching framework and/or coaching protocol for work with teachers. Each school has a different structure in place for guiding teacher growth in the classroom, and most of these structures are focused on some sort of framework, whether it be a coaching protocol, goal-setting process, observation tool, teaching framework, or some combination thereof. If resilience, adaptability, and/or risk taking are valued dispositions for the faculty they should be built into these frameworks. Some teachers have begun to include a “failure” grade into their classes as a way of encouraging students to take risks, intentionally asking students to fail as a way for them to get over their fears related to failure and recognize the value of learning from the experience. Acknowledging that failure (and even risk-taking) looks different for every student and every level, this can be approached through a reflective journal where students talk about where they took risks and went outside of their comfort zone or focus on something they did over the course of the year that just did not work as they had hoped. It could be also be pushing students beyond the rubric in a way that is safe, but also encourages risk-taking. Building risk-taking (or “failure”) into these frameworks for teachers could have the same effect, so what is the role of risk-taking in the observation or coaching process? What does that look like for the teachers? What supports are in place to help them feel comfortable in taking risks, both during the process and the aftermath?
By integrating risk-taking, adaptability, and resilience into various aspects of the school and the individual classrooms, teachers can play an important role as models for the students, helping maximize their growth in a safe, nurturing way that encourages them to take risks and reap the rewards.
Dr. Sarah Levy & Mark Parmet
Dr. Sarah Levy and Mark Parmet are the co-founders and heads of school for Einstein Academy, a new private school located in Denver, CO. They have a combined thirty-five years of experience in education, including youth and family education, adult education, and day school education.