Sunday, January 29, 2012

Risk Adversity and Fear of Failure

At Educon's opening panel discussion there was much talk about how our society has become adverse to risk taking, and how that fear of failure has stifled both student learning and reform efforts in our schools.  I've thought a lot about that over the past two days.

The current trend of school districts buying textbook programs with scripted lessons for teachers to follow is a perfect example of how this problem is manifesting itself.  With such lessons you will never get great teaching, but you also (theoretically) will prevent students from sitting through a failed lesson.  Schools are betting that the mediocrity will accumulate over the course of the year so that a high enough percentage of students can pass the state tests, thus preventing the school from being designated a "failure."

Image Credit: renjith krishnan
There are many negative effects of these scripted lessons.  Teachers never get to try new teaching strategies and learn what works and what doesn't.  They never get to learn from failure.  Teachers stop thinking creatively about new lessons.  Since they are being less creative, they are less able to teach their students to be creative.  Teaching becomes a lot more boring when you are simply reading a script, and students learn less from unenthusiastic teachers.

Students are suffering directly from this risk adversity, too.  Lately the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students in my school have been preparing for the school's science fair.  I've asked many of them what experiments they are planning to do.  Every student I've asked has referred me to a book of science fair projects where the procedure, outcome, and explanation are provided.  This is not science, and those aren't experiments.  The thought of our students trying something and failing has become so unpalatable to us that we have reduced science to the same scripted replication our teachers are being forced to follow.

Science, especially at the elementary school level, should be about wondering why things are the way they are, solving problems, trying new things, learning from failure, discovery, and exploring the world around us.  Experiments should be designed because students have a question they are curious about and have developed ways they think they can test answers.  They should be forced to interpret results.  In short we need to put the higher order thinking back into our schools in science and all subjects.  

Fear of failure never led to greatness.  In order for our schools to be great we need to move past our fear and let teachers and students take risks.

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