What if teachers and schools were less risk averse?

This text was originally prepared for Educational Services Australia and published on the Scootle Lounge, and has been modified to suit this post.

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A photo by Alex Wong

Developing the positive connotations around failure, effort, and growth mindsets is one of the most powerful gifts that we can give to our students.

People would agree that if students are not making mistakes and learning from them, they’re not developing as they should be.

I would argue that if you are not making mistakes as a teacher and learning from those, you are not developing as you should be either.

Of course, mastering the classroom curriculum is very different to mastering the fine art of teaching. However, when it comes to the professional standards for teachersI would argue that a teacher cannot possibly develop through these standards unless they are willing to try new things, reflect, and learn from their practices.

Modern students are encouraged to take risks in their learning. Therefore, we as teachers should be encouraging ourselves to do the same. If we are not failing and learning from these failures, we really need to be asking ourselves if we are daring audaciously at all.

We are creatures of comfort

Teachers tend to find the familiarity of daily practice comforting and predictable. A new process, idea or organisational change becomes a very threat to that because it is in opposition to what we know and expect.

The human brain is hardwired to keep us safe, the consequence of which is to be habitually averse to change. We tend to stick to tried and tested units of work rather than embrace new methods. We wouldn’t want to look silly in front of our students if that new gadget or gizmo didn’t behave on the day, and we certainly wouldn’t want to deal with the mess or chaos that might ensue if we gave a bit more freedom and autonomy to students in the classroom.

Change is both hard and uncomfortable.

We plead with our students to take risks in their academic work, yet many adults in our system seem to stay frozen in time, rarely changing their classroom structure, embracing a new technology, redesigning a curriculum unit or reimagining a lesson plan.

If we are serious about providing the best possible education for our students, we need to face the reality that the traditional schooling that we have inherited is inadequate. If we want to change the way our classrooms and schools operate, then we must put the expectation upon ourselves to dare to do things differently, better and more deliberately.

Previously, I have discussed the need for schools to think and act in agile ways if they are to remain relevant for modern students. Progressive change in our schools goes against the traditional notion of schooling where educators teach masses of content in an orderly and easily digestible way that is ultimately measured on a report card or a test score. We can avoid the ‘same old, same old’ if we decide it is time for us to embrace change and approach our professional practice with a willingness to innovate, try new technologies and pedagogies, and constantly reflect upon and improve students’ classroom experiences.

Pausing to reflect

To progress is to learn more about what we don’t know, which requires a curious mindset and a willingness to be investigative by giving something a go.

All teachers should be encouraged to innovate in their classrooms if they are to reimagine the possibilities for their students. This requires thoughtful reflection around asking the right questions about the current state of the school or classroom, and thinking about where the desired outcomes should be.

This happens best when we slow down and step back. This is seemingly difficult because humans can be very task and goal orientated. Especially, when it comes to workloads, teachers can have the feeling that there should be no time for pausing and reflecting, but rather, getting on with the task at hand. It is hard for individuals, and even harder for organisations to build a culture where reflection and questioning is prioritised.

Stopping may be perceived as the antithesis of progress but, when you stop, you pause and invite questions. These can lead to insights, ideas and new possibilities. For example:

  • Why is teaching content decided by teachers?
    Asking ‘Why’ can provide insights and offer perspectives on problems and challenges that can be used as opportunities for improvement.
  • What if students had genuine co-creation in the curriculum plans?
    Asking ‘What if’ invites the creative imagination and brings an innovative mindset to the fore, allowing for the exploration of new possibilities in the classroom or school community.
  • How might we include student voices in the design of the curriculum?
    Asking ‘How’ invites action and the execution of ideas, which can be explored in an iterative manner, embracing risk and failure as part of the process.

Taking a leap of faith

Organisations and schools are facing times of dramatic change, reflective of the world around us. Therefore, the school community and individual teachers need to be comfortable with constant questioning of and reflecting on current practices.

We may find that each time we challenge ourselves it becomes a little easier and that, in doing so, we gradually expand our comfort zone and deal with our fear of change. It is through deliberate practice that we can build our own capacity for change, just as we tell our students.

Every day we have the opportunity to improve ourselves. Let’s think about our own practices and the bold path and required actions towards great educational experiences for our students.
In the wise words of Dr Suess:

“If you never did, you should.

These things are fun and fun is good”

(From ‘One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish’)

 

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