Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Freedom to Fail: One of the Fundamental Rights of Education

Part I of II

In schools today we place an incredible emphasis on success, perhaps to a fault. I will be the first to argue that every student and every teacher should experience genuine success on a regular basis. I will also be the first to argue that we as educational leaders must do everything possible to put our students and teachers in a position to be successful. However, in our efforts to make our students and teachers successful, I fear we have lost the value of failure. Great coaches often remark that they and their teams learn more from losses (failures) than they do from wins (successes). Educational leaders must take this to heart and grant our teachers and students the freedom to fail.

As a classroom teacher I tried a wide variety of instructional strategies and methods of assessment. Some I created and developed and some I adapted or borrowed from other teachers or resources. Some of these experiments worked brilliantly while others were complete disasters. Had my administrators stifled my creativity, discouraged my innovation or, worse yet, put me on a tight leash and made me feel guilty after my first failure, I most likely would have ceased exploration, experimentation and creative thought. As an administrator, it is imperative I remember the freedom I was given to explore, create and take calculated risks when I was a teacher and I must give my teachers the same freedom. Too often I have seen teachers who fear new and creative teaching or assessment strategies because their former administrators chastised them for trying something unsuccessfully. What a shame! Teachers must believe without a doubt that they will be supported and encouraged in their creativity even when the end result isn’t what he or she had hoped. Only when teachers see that there will be no adverse administrative reaction to failed attempts at executing well-planned ideas will they continue to be creative and to be innovators.

Granting teachers the freedom to fail is only part of the equation for educational leaders, though. We will see the greatest improvement on our campuses when we help teachers turn temporary setbacks into learning experiences. We must emphasize that failure as an end is not acceptable but rather failure is often part of the process of achieving long-term success. When we find a teacher who has failed, we must guide that teacher through a supportive and non-threatening process of reflective thinking so he or she (and we) can learn from the failure. Was there adequate preparation and forethought? Was there a miscalculation? Did the teacher underestimate or overestimate the students’ abilities? Was there enough relevance for students? Was the plan flawed from the beginning or was there a mistake in the execution of the plan? Can the plan be tweaked and tried again or should the plan be abandoned? What can be done differently to produce the desired outcomes next time? Once a teacher, through reflection and careful analysis, has developed a new and improved plan, he or she will be more likely to make a second effort or to try something else new; the key for the teacher is the knowledge that he or she has been granted the freedom to fail and will be offered the support and encouragement to continue to strive for success.

1 comment:

Phil said...

Great thoughts, yet again Nathan.

As you seem to suggest, the administration helps to create a culture where such important and constructive feedback and reflection is necessary, even as it is imperative that teachers themselves remain open to instruction.

And I really like the probing questions you offer. They encourage reflection and inspire (continued) innovation.