Practising What We Preach:Daring Greatly and Failing Gracefully in the Classroom
02nd October 2019
by Jennifer Borch
America’s favorite fictional educator from the 1990’s, Ms. Frizzle of “Magic School Bus” fame, may have summed it up best in her regular refrain, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” This eccentric, enthusiastic, unflappable proponent of a growth mindset mentality was significantly ahead of her time. It has now been just over a decade since Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, coined the term “growth mindset.” In her 2007 book, “Mindset,” Dweck identified two mindsets that shape our lives, the “fixed mindset,” which assumes that our intelligence, talents, and character traits are static, and the “growth mindset,” which presumes that our brains are malleable muscles that can change and grow with experience. Those with fixed mindsets feel the need to repeatedly prove themselves to be smart and talented without exerting effort. In contrast, those with growth mindsets understand that seeking challenges is essential to brain growth and the ability to change. Logically, those with growth mindsets also understand that failure is a natural step along the path to success.
Earlier this month, I found myself facilitating a workshop on growth mindset with the goal of helping English teachers reflect on their practices and discover teaching strategies to encourage students to continually stretch themselves and persevere through challenges – creating classrooms where students focus on developing themselves not proving themselves. Teachers attending this workshop jumped on the “growth mindset” bandwagon – embracing the ideas of explicitly teaching students about the brain’s neuroplasticity, perfecting their practices of mindfully praising effort rather than results, and pledging to encourage students to take risks and challenge themselves with an emphasis on learning rather than on success and failure.
With English language learners, there are endless opportunities for risk-taking in the classroom. Each day we ask our students to step way outside their comfort zones and bravely “just try” in an unfamiliar language. We ask them to repeat strange words, respond to directions that are difficult to understand, and risk embarrassment by saying or doing the wrong thing. We ask them to act things out when they don’t like acting. We ask them to draw when they don’t like art. We ask them to sing even though music may not be their favorite. We ask students to dare and to take risks. We constantly challenge them to try new things and reassure them that failure is just part of the process. We create a safe classroom environment that will cushion the fall, and we help them rebound and try again. When they say, “I can’t.” We respond with, “Not yet.” We ask our students to be courageous, take chances, and learn from their failures.
One week after that growth mindset workshop, I found myself on a stage with an audience of 650 English teachers staring up at me. Someone had decided that I should be the plenary speaker at this English teaching conference. I looked out at the sea of faces gazing up at me, and I thought to myself, “Oh no. They think I have something to offer them. They expect wisdom to come from these lips.” They had no idea. I am a teacher just like they are teachers – quite likely no more qualified to occupy the space on that stage than they were. My job is to train teachers to get out of the way of their students’ learning - to remind them that their role is not to be a “sage on the stage” but rather a “guide on the side.” Alas, there I found myself – literally on a stage with 650 people still staring at me. In that moment, as they listened attentively for me to say something insightful, I decided that there was no better time to model my mantra – to dare greatly and risk failure. My fear became my fuel, and Ms. Frizzle possessed my soul. I threw caution to the wind and vowed to expose my own vulnerability in the name of working with relevant material in authentic situations. It really couldn’t get more terrifyingly real.
I decided to start with a warm-up to give myself a chance to calm my nerves while the audience got to know one another. I’d never done a warm-up with a group of 650 before. It seemed a tad unwieldy for a lively game of Four Corners or Where the Wind Blows. I decided to relinquish control, let things get messy, and try a warm-up I had used only once before (in an intimate setting of 50). I asked everyone to pull out their cell phones, open their contact lists, and, then, trade phones with a stranger. As they, first, panicked and, then, scrolled through one another’s contacts and settled on one to chat about, I breathed a sigh of relief to see that everyone was actively engaged and sufficiently distracted from my presence on the stage. It didn’t take long for me to recognize, however, that this bliss would be short-lived; I had the awful realization that I would soon need to regain the attention of this giant audience which I had just turned loose on a messy social experiment. Once again, I was terrified.
There was no need to be worried. There is no group more sympathetic to the need of a speaker to regain the attention of an audience than a group of teachers. With the raise of a hand, a magical wave of hands held high moved through the auditorium, and, with uncanny (and regrettable) speed, everyone was, once again, quietly staring at me. Now, however, I had my authentic material, my relevant example, and my very tangible terror to carry me through. I launched by telling the audience how nervous I was to be up on the stage and asked if they had ever felt nervous in front of their students at school. I shared my honest fears about our warm-up activity – the fact that it seemed messy and that the results would be unpredictable. I had no way of knowing if my audience would understand the directions and participate enthusiastically or if they would reluctantly clutch their phones and refuse to engage. Furthermore, I had no real plan for how I would wrap-up this activity and regain everyone’s attention. So many things could have gone wrong. There were infinite opportunities for failure. Yet, I tried anyway. And, this, I suggested was the missing piece in growth mindset training. Over the course of an hour, teachers shared stories of successes and failures in the classroom. We realized that with each failure came a lesson and an opportunity to make changes and to improve. Every teacher in that audience acknowledged that we ask this of students every day, yet we rarely hold ourselves to the same standard.
Ms. Frizzle’s advice is not intended for students alone. Teachers need to, “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.” We need to embrace wisdom of “The Frizz” and model courage in our classrooms. If we are afraid to try new things and relinquish control in our teaching, how can we be risk-taking role models for our students? Courage is contagious. To model daring leadership and build courage in our students, teachers must cultivate a classroom culture in which risk-taking, critical thinking, and whole-hearted effort are the expectation. Stretching ourselves as teachers (and as speakers), despite the risk of failure, encourages students to be curious, to explore, and to question. Teachers must work to create courageous classrooms where daring greatly is the norm and success is measured in the willingness to risk failure.