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Failure is an Option.

Our classrooms are not just about helping students gain content knowledge.  We are also responsible for imparting a set of skills that are important in our chosen discipline. In addition, we should be teaching other skills that can be carried into any field of study such as literacy and the 4 C’s (communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration).

Every time we ask students to learn a new skill, we are asking them to take a risk.  They are making themselves vulnerable and open to failure.  This failure is necessary to learn from, but failing is not easy. But what type of push can we provide to get them to take that risk.  It can’t be motivated by fear like in the case of Butch and Sundance.

My current crop of students in AP have spent most of their schooling not being asked to take risks in the classroom.  They have learned how to play the “game” of school and have been very successful at it.  Outside of the classroom, though, these students are involved in many extracurriculars where they take risks.  Whether it be in sports or the arts, our students are constantly performing without a net and are excelling at it.  The traditional classroom has been a place where students are not encouraged to take creative risks. Lately as I walk around my school, I am glad to see this change in so many classrooms.  Teachers in all content areas are allowing students to show their creativity and take risks in class with different forms of assessment like songs, plays, videos, digital and physical drawings and paintings.

My current project in AP physics is one in which I am asking students to take on the role of a science consultant who will explain the concept of momentum to a groups of professionals.  If they were just given a list of what content to include, I can imagine that these products would be very similar and dry.  If these products are supposed to be authentic, they need to be engaging.  So in the rubric, content is not the only thing assessed.  Students are also expected to show originality in their work. This will require them to step out of the ordinary. The Buck Institute has some fantastic rubrics for measuring 21st Century Skills which I have used as a guide.   

How does a teacher encourage students to take a risk?  Most of my students have achieved at the highest levels academically without ever having to step out of their comfort zone.  How does a teacher create an incentive to risk failure? To be honest, I don’t know the answer.

I think positive feedback from a teacher goes a long way when a student takes a risk, even if s/he fails.  If this failure translates into a poor grade, the words of encouragement may fall on deaf ears. I’m trying something out for this project and we’ll see how it goes.  I created a simple Google form called The Risk Form.  Each student enters a risk they are taking in the project.  This will allow me to have a spreadsheet with at least one risk each student is taking.  By formally identifying a risk, not only do I know about it, the student has identified it for themselves. This risk can be anything.  It could be using humor in their video.  It could be trying a special effect technique.  It could be applying the science content to an area they are interested in.   If that risk doesn't work, I will not penalize them for the failure.  By not counting a failure against them, it is my hope that they will be encouraged them to take more risks in their projects.    

I’ll be interested to see how many of my students decide to push themselves in the risks that they take.  I will be sure to share some of these risks as they are collected.  Here are a few of the initial risks students entered today:

  • I will be animating the presentation with an iPad.
  • Having a plot twist that will allow  people to understand the timeline. Special effects.
  • We are "estimating" some of our data, which may not make sense in the end.
  • My acting may not convince you
  • I will be telling egg jokes. I think they are funny so hopefully you will, too

It will be nice to connect with the students about the risks they took and see if they were worth it. I’m interested to see if student failure without academic consequence could possibly lead to more risks being taken.  As a teacher I need to be there to provide the support they need when they take that jump, even if they can’t swim.

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