Risky Business

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.

the chess pieces on a table in the park

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.



  1. Michael J. Gras, M.Ed. says:

    Both profound and common. I wonder why the acceptance of failure (and mastering the ability to move on) is stressful to so many. Just the idea of “experience” implies a potential of benefit from failure. As kids do more real work in classrooms, failure will be an integral part of the learner’s life. Thank you for the insight. It needs to spread.

  2. Hi David.
    Nice piece but I wonder if you’re missing the point by suggesting some teach students to fail. Teaching students to fail is quite different to teaching students (teachers, etc) it is “OK” to fail. Failure that leads to learning is the goal. Failure is never the endpoint. It’s about making a ‘mistake’, learning, improving and getting back up to try again.

    Thanks for making me think!


    • davidjakes says:

      Unfortunately, many do, whether intentionally or not, position failure as something to be achieved. I’ve heard it too many times. I agree with you that “failure” can be positioned properly within a process. That said, my experiences in my work in corporate America suggest something completely different – we never, never talked about failure. It was simple course correction as I mentioned in my post. The worst thing possible was to fail – if you fail you’re out of a job. In my consulting work, I do everything possible to avoid making ANY mistakes. Failure is way overrated and the love affair that some have with this as a trendy (see grit, see personalization, see SAMR, see the list goes on forever) way to improve education is misguided in my opinion. Appreciate your comment.

  3. Hey Pal,

    First, it’s been a LONG time! I hope you are well and happy and surviving another year with Cutler under center. It coulda been worse, right?!

    Second, thanks for pointing out the distinction between failure and strategic risk. Over the years, I’ve become more and more convinced that our language matters — and that changing schools starts when we are careful about the words that we use.

    For me, the distinction here is that failure is lazy — it says, “Hey — don’t bother with a lot of thinking because it doesn’t matters anyway.” Strategic risk suggests careful and critical thought before we take any action at all. That’s the kind of behavior we ought to be promoting in our kids.

    As for the fear of failure, you’ve heard me say it a thousand times: I fear failure because there are people breathing down my neck at every turn. If our test scores don’t measure up, we get called out. Until that changes, I’m not sure that any teacher will have a healthy attitude towards either failure OR strategic risk taking.

    Anyway, happy holidays!

    • davidjakes says:

      Hi Bill:

      Hey, he’s playing better, now if we could get Robbie Gould to make a field goal…

      Language and words do matter. And I like your statement about critical and creative thought occurring prior to risk-taking to make it strategic.

      Your point about the expectations that people have for your performance are of course very real. Failure is not an option. That I think is my overall point – there is too much at stake (for literally everyone and everything at anytime) to be focused on something like failure. I wonder about teachers that want to work with failure (in any context) and propose that as a way towards success – how do they actually do that? What are their processes for assessment if kids fail on something? What are their next steps? What do kids do? I never see any of that. Just a lot of head nodding about how cool a new trend is when speakers show a cool slide or its a part of a Twitter chat (shudder). My final comment: stand up at open house and tell parents that you are going to work with failure and help THEIR kids understand failure and become successful by failing. Good luck on the unemployment line.


  1. […] Risk-Takers – How do we get students to try different ways to share their learning through assessments, and as David Jakes would say, take “calculated risks“. […]

  2. […] Risk-Takers – How do we get students to try different ways to share their learning through assessments, and as David Jakes would say, take “calculated risks“. […]

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