Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Risk and Failure

We say we admire risk-takers. Maybe that's true, but we do little to cultivate them in schools because we punish failure.  AJ Juliani, one of my favorite bloggers and ed-tech writers, has written some posts celebrating failure. I love, love the idea of doing this. His class mantra is, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn." (I'm stealing that one for my class.)
There are so many sayings, cliches, and truisms about learning from failure. A quick google search finds gems such as:
  • “Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”                                                                                                                         - Coco Chanel   
  • “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”                                                                                                           -Robert F. Kennedy                                and this wouldn't be an ed-tech blog without a  Ken Robinson quote: 
  • “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” 

Any honest self-assessment of schooling must lead us to the conclusion that we do not encourage risk-taking in schools. Failure is uniformly seen as bad. We either equate failure with lack of effort or we refuse to acknowledge the difference between them. A great teacher of mine, +Russ Walsh, used to talk about this in relation to the downsides of grading student writing. He posited that if we were going to punish kids (take away points/ give lower grades) for misspellings and grammar mistakes then our students were going to write a lot more safe (and boring) stories about big dogs than riskier stories about enormous pterodactyls. By punishing risk-taking and rewarding playing it safe we create kids who are risk-averse. I'd extend this argument to suggest that most school practices create kids who are risk averse. As long as we punish kids for mistakes (and don't say we aren't punishing them) this will remain true. Go ahead, take a risk! But risk a poor grade. It's a game only a rebel or sucker would play.

Next year, I will be teaching 12th graders, most of whom are very used to and very good at the traditional rules of the game and who have been trained to be risk averse and who are desperately worried about getting into college. I plan to incorporate some genius hour/ 20% time in the course. I will want to celebrate spectacular failure. I will want kids to aim high and think big. And when it doesn't work out, I will want them consider how to do it better next time. I hope I can pull it off, but if not I will remind myself that sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. 

In the spirit of solidarity, I will also acknowledge and reflect upon my failures publicly with the students. This is going to be a very different kind of high school history course. It is my first time teaching it. 

This will be a big paradigm shift for me as well. I like being successful. I'll let you know how it goes. 

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