Monday, November 12, 2007

Fear of falure

Making Innovation Flourish: Failure is acceptable

I would go a step further and say not only is failure acceptable but it should be seen as inevitable.

Risky strategy
Originally uploaded by mark lorch
So says George Whitehead in a blog on the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) site. He seems to be talking about the world of business and entrepreneurial-ish things, but I wonder if education could learn from this kind of attitude. For example, it seems that some children are unwilling to answer questions in class for fear of getting it wrong and there is at least anecdotal evidence that students continue to look for the "right answer" even when the teacher assures them there is no right answer. However repeated failure with no realistic hope of success is clearly not a good thing, so how do you find a balance?

George ends his blog post with:
I don’t celebrate failure but it should be seen it as inevitable in a risk taking business.
Is the opposite attitude prevalent in education? Is there is a tendency to avoid even the possibility of failure? Are we unduly interested in risk-avoidance? It seems to me that education is not a risk-free activity. If everything is kept to small, easily achievable steps, we may minimise the possibility of failure, but we may also miss the excitement of the big success. Why do people do crosswords, suduko, jigsaws etc? It's not because they are easy - quite the opposite. It is the possibility of failure that makes these activities interesting and the possibility of success that keeps us trying to solve them.

However, even as I write this post, I worry about two possibilities. Firstly, I wonder if I am too far away from the classroom and therefore too unrealistic in my expectations. "Its alright for him, he doesn't have parents, and senior management, and inspectors breathing down his neck looking for exam results!" I fear there is some truth in these accusations. Also, as I consider my own teaching, I realise how rarely I take risks myself and I'm not sure how often I ask students to do something knowing that they might fail. Physician heal thyself! I clearly need to think about this more carefully in relation to my own teaching.

Secondly, I wonder if I'm being too pessimistic. Perhaps there is more risk taking going on in education than I think. I am not suggesting that we have to be taking risks all day every day, so there may well be parts of the term, or particular projects, where the potential for failure exits. Have you any examples of where you have taken risks? Can you share your successes... and perhaps just as importantly, your failures?

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Ewan McIntosh said...

Being risk-averse is one of the biggest risks I think teachers and managers can take. I bang on about it. Interestingly, when the group I am working with is at a managerial level there is far more readiness to take risk. Where the group is student teachers or teaching staff, there is no desire to take risk (for fear of failure and all the managerial pressure that comes with that).

Maybe, in fact, this is nothing more than a communication problem between managers and teachers the world over?

krysia said...

Hi David,

Failing forward - its the way to go.
I tried it out with a group of first years, we were building towers out of newspaper and scellotape which had to support a tennis ball at the top. Tallest tower wins. I gave them almost no instruction, just the bare facts really. I was aware that some kids would fail and, yes, they did.
However, I found it interesting - I was going to happily let them fail because I knew I could catch them and help them. I gave them a wee evalution session, talked a bit about strong structures, things such as rolling the newspaper instead of scrunching it, a wee bit of peer assessment and they went off for another 15 minutes and greatly improved their structures.
The interesting bit was that I was willing for them to fail in their learning because I knew I could fix it. Would I be willing for me to fail in my learning (in front of a class)? Of course as an NQT, I know I make plenty of mistakes that which I learn from, but that is different. Would I or you actively try something with pupils/students where there is a strong possibility of failure on your own part? Would the pupils appreciate this, when you can't offer a solution? Probably not, but I guess that is one of the hidden beauties about learning; reflecting back on the crap stuff.
Well done on Rock Radio, I listen to it all the time now :)

Tom Barrett said...

I like the phrase from Krysia - failing forward. I think that we can as teachers become a little complacent about the pedagogy we rely upon. It is easy to take the comfortable option but that doesn't always lead to the most effective learning experience.

I consider calculated risk taking in the learning opportunities we plan for, very important. Risks do not often give you much middle ground in terms of outcomes. The learning opp is either outstanding and we all say "why haven't we been doing this all along" - or it falls on it's face, hard. "Well, that didn't work out as planned!"

Planned risks in my classroom challenge me in lots of ways. It pushes the pedagogy in new directions, stretching and flipping it. Sometimes it snaps back but I am then determined to understand why and what I can do differently next time.

I can recall two occasions when I have had different outcomes. The first (David you may remember) was using the notes feature in Flickr for Goodnight Mr Tom - it worked extremely well and was a great lesson. The other I recently explored on my blog was less successful - using a shared Google presentation between different groups. The question is: which risk did I learn more from?

I would say both proved valuable professional lessons - but I learned more from the latter. It has challenged me more, it has raised more questions.

If we don't look to stretch our pedagogy it will be soon outdated and stale.

marlyn moffat said...

There is much activity in primaries about teaching problem solving. In some establishments it's from books, worksheets and schemes of work. The outcome is either right or wrong in that case. So much for the 'confident individual' that got it wrong. How much better is it from experience? Failure is an important part of learning to problem solve, to gain confidence in the belief that most things are surmountable, or at least sortable to an acceptable outcome, and not just a right answer. It's a positive thing for children to see things go amiss at our level too, if we use the opportunity,as part of the learning and teaching process, and don't sign off on a negative note. It's how the failure is dealt with that's the message they will remember. I fail every day, but then I succeed every day too!
Nothing ventured... nothing gained.