Posts Tagged ‘fear of failing’

Learning . . . you don’t always have to be right

I remember being assigned to a school where most of the students were failing, most of the time. The idea was to work with the teachers to discover ways of teaching/learning that would decrease the failure rate.

There were two problems that we needed to address, both of them deeply embedded in the familiar way of doing things:

(1) When the teacher would ask a question, none of the students would risk raising their hands because of the fear of giving an answer that was not exactly right, and

(2) When the teachers were asked to experiment with new behaviors, with new ways of teaching, with new ways of conducting student learning activities, the teachers did not want to risk trying and not getting it exactly right.

What to do?

The first thing we did was to put up a large poster in every classroom:


This was from Dr. Merrill Harmin’s book entitled Strategies to Inspire Active Learning: Complete Handbook, p. 51.

It didn’t help much. Everyone was still afraid to make mistakes.

Finally, I held a teacher training session, during which I was supposed to urge them to take some risks, do something different (anything!) because the failure rates were so high that we couldn’t possibly do much worse, no matter what we tried.

This had been tried before with little success, so I decided to practice what I preach (risking doing something different, risking making mistakes, risking doing it not exactly right).

During my presentation I made a complete fool of myself, trying on ridiculous behaviors and using wildly amusing analogies, acting out goofy scenarios in which I was not maintaining the decorum expected of a professional teacher trainer.

At first there was stunned silence. Shock. Dismay.

Then, as the humor increased, the teachers began to relax a little. Then they started to smile a little. Then they couldn’t help themselves, as they began to laugh to the point of laughing themselves silly.

It was a breakthrough. Some of the teachers began to risk new behaviors. The others followed their lead.

The students, seeing the teachers willing to risk, began, ever so slowly, ever so hesitantly, to risk trying to answer questions when they were unsure of the answers.

Slowly the school turned the dismal failure record around.

The majority of students began to taste success and then deliver it more consistently.


Doc Meek, April 29, 2010, Sherwood Park, Alberta, CANADA

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