I hear from educators all the time about the fears that they have about changing what they do. What if I try things and they don’t work? If I’m a teacher and I fail at something, how will I be perceived? By my colleagues? By my students? By parents? What will happen if I try something and the administrator that evaluates me walks past my room and doesn’t understand what I am trying to do? As an administrator, what if I fail at something? How will that be perceived by students, teachers, peers and the community I serve? The questions are the same regardless of the role. There is a fear of failing and what that can mean. Doing something new or something different is a risk, and associated with that is the opportunity to fail. And when such a risk exists, and that potential outcome is indeed a reality, people are less inclined to engage in that activity. No one wants to fail at something.
Yet, at the same time, there is a growing interest among educators in helping students “learn how to fail.” A quick trip through your Twitter feed will validate that, and it will be confirmed by keynoters shouting it from the stage at just about every conference. And I simply cannot think of worse advice, or of a worse direction, and how misguided focusing on failure actually is, but that’s for another post.
However, what I find interesting is the concern about the fear and the risks that educators have about failing, but at the same time, a belief that it’s perfectly acceptable for students to take risks and “learn how to fail.” And I would offer that failure at any age has ramifications, and that being young and being a student does not make failure any more palatable.
What’s missing in all of this is one simple word that changes everything. It’s strategy. Add strategic in front of risk and risk becomes different. Instead of taking risks, what if teachers and students took strategic risks? Not just a risk, but a calculated risk framed within a process where bold steps were expected, supported, and celebrated? Being strategic means that risk-taking occurs within an environment where course correction and iteration is not only accepted, but expected, and is part of a process that ultimately focuses on achievement and successful outcomes. In my mind, taking a strategic risk is much different than taking a risk.
Missing from the last paragraph is any mention of failure. In fact, what’s mentioned above is a million miles away from teaching kids “how to fail.” It’s about being strategic, about process, about course correction and iteration. It’s about getting better at something and operating within a process and culture that values success. It’s about teaching and learning towards an end point of success and not one of failure. It’s about nurturing disruptive ideas, what if’s, and outrageous “yes ands” – all which involve risks and the potential for things not to work – in an environment that seeks to shift something as fearful and stagnating as risk into a strategic asset that promotes successful practice and people.