All or Nothing

I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. I think to be a teacher, you have to be. If I didn’t have the ability to look on the bright side, I wouldn’t want to go back the next day. Part of that is because of the stories I see and hear each day. Some of my kids go through heartbreak and deal with bigger issues than I’ve ever had to. I do my best each day to give wisdom and good advice and I try to encourage and build as much as I can. Another reason to be optimistic is to combat the fear of failure. And I fail. A lot. But, I recognize that I fail a lot because I try new things. A lot.

I’m always looking for new ways to do things in my classes. I’m never satisfied with what we were able to do…I want something to go more smoothly, to wrap up nice and neat. But, whenever you’re working with other people, especially young people, perfection rarely happens. In fact, I’m not sure I think it should ever happen. There should always be a loose end that drives learners to want to know more than what you gave a taste of. We are, after all, trying to spark curiosity and a desire to learn more.

When we hear about new ways to do things, we tend to look at barriers. It’s in our nature. What can go wrong? How can we avoid failure? How can we prevent x or y from happening? That’s good planning and it is good to exercise prudence. But, when you’re at the front of any group, physically or metaphorically, there is risk involved. We may be planners, but we’re not prophets…we cannot see the outcomes of our risks. We can only effect change as much as we’re willing to put into taking a risk.

Is risk inherent in the changes we’re trying to make? For example, is a change in methodology or practice risky because of the pedagogical change? In some cases, yes. I am not going to start letting my chemistry learners play with flame and gas to learn about the rapid expansion of hot gases. There is inherent risk in that change because of burns, property damage, etc.

What kinds of changes are we afraid to make because of the change in school culture that would be required? It is risky enough to change a small piece and the risk factor increases as it begins to challenge the culture more directly. You will be an outlier, but that is the risk that is appropriate when trying to change an established system.

Schools are cultural hubs and to change education, we need to change the culture of schools. Every day, we bring in millions of young people that will be changing the world before we know it. Are we teaching and demonstrating willingness to take risks? Are we embracing and learning from those risks? Far too often, we are discouraging and even punishing risky learning behavior.

I am not a master of risk-taking. I probably won’t ever go skydiving or learn to wrangle alligators. But, I am willing to dive in and try new things. Sometimes, the experiments and changes are a spectacular failure. Other times, they are spectacular successes. Either way, we learn together from the outcomes. But it takes a willingness to accept either outcome.


This post stems partially from meeting Stephen Harris, principal of the Sydney Center for Innovation in Learning in Sydney, Australia. Also, from following the Anastasis Academy in Lone Tree, CO, outside of Denver. Both of these schools pushed for change in the face of great failure and have become two of the best examples of learning done right. Thank you.

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