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Fall Hard, But Do It Where Students Can See

Failing can be the scariest thing possible if we let it be. As a matter of fact, I spent the vast majority of my life fearing people would see me for the fraud I felt I was.

Always trying so hard to do everything perfectly, I never let people see everything that happened prior to the final product. My process is messy and I was afraid to be judged for not being perfect.

As I listened to students share their ideas about learning this week during their progress conferences, I saw how needing to be right paralyzed them too.

At the age of 5, my son and his peers had no fear of being wrong. When the teacher asked a question while I read to his class, all the hands went up and when the answer was wrong, no shame, just an opportunity to raise their hands again. And they did. Not one kid was made fun of for guessing the wrong answer, only encouraged to try again.

"Logan, you need to come to my senior class and teach them how you ask questions and aren't afraid to keep digging until you get to the right answer." I asked my son to come to school with me and he loved the idea.

Some time in between elementary school and high school students become increasingly more self-conscious, afraid of taking risks, and taught that being wrong is bad. 

So how can we fix this?

We must allow ourselves to fall and fall hard while kids are watching. Not just tell them about it, but actually do it.

It can start with something small. I walk into desks and other objects in the room repeatedly.

I'm clumsy. Making a joke out of it and telling them it'll leave a mark, the kids worry about me but if they tripped over their own feet, they'd be embarrassed too. 

Learning new stuff is like this too. When we don't get it the first time, we feel embarrassed and we hope no one else will notice. Unfortunately, that fear and shame vastly impede our ability to grow. So the fear is something we have to embrace rather than run away from.

Here's what you can do in your class:

  • Admit when you don't know something - turn it into a class project to find out

  • Share anecdotes that challenged your own fear of failure where appropriate

  • Allow students to share their expertise and admit what it feels like to not know and then show them how to get the information they need to feel better about it.

  • Never let the defeat be the end result of what students see

  • When you err, and you will, admit it openly and rectify the situation. Apologize to the student or the class if you ever made them feel like not knowing wasn't okay.

  • Make your classroom a safe place to be wrong

  • On some days ask kids for the best wrong answers they can come up with demystifying the experience

  • Be transparent about the process and that it's okay to not get it right away. After all, mastery takes practice and opportunity.

  • If you see a student is struggling, make sure to take them to the side and ask them if you can help. Even ask what kind of help works for them.

No one enjoys the feeling of being wrong. We need to change the experience of failure from one that makes us feel stupid to one that empowers us to move forward. If we continue to rewrite the message of growth with learning as opposed to making it a bad thing.

What can you do in your class tomorrow to show students that learning is hard and mistakes will happen, but there is a lot of opportunity through the process? Please share

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in November of 2015


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