The ability to risk, fail and persevere is essential to success in the modern world. Partnership for 21st Century Learning has identified the value of “viewing failure as an opportunity to learn; understanding that creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes.”
If we, as educators, really believe that risk-taking is an essential aspect of learning, then we are responsible for creating a culture in which both students and teachers are motivated, encouraged and expected to take risks leading to higher engagement and authentic learning.
Classrooms and school cultures can be designed to build the habits and attitudes that support the benefits of failure in meaningful risk-taking. Here are five methods to encourage this mindset amongst students:
Start with the youngest students and provide multiple opportunities to hypothesize about an outcome. In a story, an experiment, or the path to a new skill, ask your students:
- “What do you think will happen when…?”
- “How many times will it take to…?”
- “How many guesses will it take?”
- “How tall until it falls?”
- “How many tries until it works?”
This everyday language affirms the presence of failure as an essential component to all explorations and learning. We can shift student thinking from, “What if I fail?” to “How many times will I fail before I succeed?”
Share and discuss the number of failed attempts undertaken by highly successful people. Inventors, athletes, scientists, performers, explorers and entrepreneurs all have stories of failure. Discuss the habits and attitudes shared by these people.
Consider using the “Apollo 13” model. Show a clip from the movie and provide students with limited materials with which to solve a problem, again, tracking the number of failed attempts as a part of the path to success.
Track the predicted number of attempts compared to the actual number of attempts leading to success. Clipboards, individual whiteboards, or learning journals can be used to collect and analyze the data related to predictions, attempts, failures, and successes. Students can then ponder the essential question, “What role does failure play in success?”
With older students, shift from, “Show your answer,” to “Share your thinking and reasoning.” This small change frees up students to place more value on the process, as opposed to the result. Number talks – defined by Mammoth Math as short discussions between teacher and student on how to solve a mental math problem — are an excellent way to reveal thinking strategies, which can lead students down different paths to success. The risk of an unusual approach becomes an asset when the group collectively values many different paths to an answer.
Create opportunities for students to take safer risks. Introverts often struggle to compete with classmates who answer quickly and confidently. Start with smaller risks to build trust in the process. For example, have students share with a partner or small group instead of the entire class; provide additional “think time” before any student may respond; use technology so students may anonymously type a response; or hold up a QR code to reveal a response without the requirement of public speaking.
Teachers can be powerful models in encouraging student risk if they themselves are appropriately supported. Using the word, “pilot,” can encourage the development of new ideas, strategies, and initiatives in all aspects of teaching and learning to eliminate the fear of failure. Encourage productive risk-taking in the lesson planning process by giving teachers time to use the Japanese lesson study model to collaboratively plan and provide feedback to each other through consulting protocols.
Administrators taking risks can also clear the path for fellow teachers and their students to do the same. For example, administrators can influence a culture of risk-taking by shifting the format of faculty meetings to allow time for sharing “pilot” initiatives and what was gained through reflection on their own “failures.”
With commitment and planning, a culture of risk-taking can be woven into the fiber of classrooms and schools resulting in high engagement, energizing explorations, and deep learning at every level.
Jill Webb is the Head of Lower School at The Wellington School, a private school in Columbus, Ohio.
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