Only When We Risk Failure, Can We Adapt

A couple of evenings ago, our school held their annual curriculum night, where parents come to hear the teachers talk about what to expect in the coming year. It was a great night, and I know it’s going to be a good year as every student had at least one parent represented.

It’s not my favorite event though, as I have an irrational fear of public speaking. Yes, I teach all day, but it’s different with kids. A year ago, I decided the best way to overcome a fear is to do what you fear. There’s nothing to lose but one’s ego. Yet, risking failure certainly is not an easy task. Children want to do well, and the idea of doing things outside their comfort zone scares them. It scares most adults too. Yet, making mistakes and failing are part of the learning process – that is assuming one adapts.

I began addressing my fear by introducing the keynote speaker at our fall regional conference last year. I completely botched it. I had written it all out, edited it, practiced, and printed it. It was also only going to take a couple of minutes. I got up to the microphone and realized I couldn’t read what I had written. I used too small a font. One thing I learned: print bigger.

Rather than letting that be the end of it, I sent a proposal to speak at this year’s fall event, and it was accepted. Now instead of 2 minutes, I have an hour. Yikes! I used my 45 minutes talk on curriculum night to practice some of the things I learned: don’t rely on the script, but don’t veer too far either – and get to the point. I’ve also been reading a lot about ‘death by power point’ so I limited myself to 20 slides with no more than 2 words on each slide. I’m still way behind the times, though. I’d like to incorporate video of the children learning, but I’m just not there yet. This exercise also helped me realize that I interject fillers like “…and stuff,” at the end of my sentences, and I need to remember to stop just before that and remember that silence would suffice.

When it comes to kids, we need to acknowledge their fears, but then provide support so that they feel comfortable enough trying. They may not succeed the first time, but if they keep trying and adapting after each one, they eventually will.

I just finished reading the book, Why Success Always Starts with Failure: Adapt by Tim Harford. It’s a great book. “Being willing to fail is the essential first step to applying the ideas of [the book] Adapt in everyday life.” Hopefully, I can help kids see that a skinned knee can make us stronger and more resilient (Wendy Mogel).

The three principles in the book are:

  1. Be willing to fail a lot.
  2. Fail on a survivable scale.
  3. Spot a failure and fix it early.
Of course, it’s not human nature to do this. There is a lot of fear when it comes to trying new things. The mission statement of my school begins with “Through innovative teaching …” If we are too afraid to try new things how could we possibly be innovative teachers? Of course, some of the things we try will fail – I tried Kahn Academy with my second graders last year. Some loved it, some didn’t bother, and I didn’t find it as useful as I had hoped. In other words: I failed. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. In fact, I think the idea of the flipped classroom is a truly innovative idea. The concept behind Sal Kahn’s approach is novel and may work for some. It just didn’t work for me and my students. It may mean that it’s not the right tool for second graders, I didn’t use it as well as I could have, it’s too early to adopt, or it could be a myriad of other things. Here’s the thing – I was willing to fail, it was on a survivable scale, and I’m looking at those failures and how I might fix them for my class this year.
Anyway, if you want a great short synopsis of the book, this youtube trailer is brilliant. It’s only 3 minutes long.