Monday, November 22, 2010

Risk, failure, and the relationship between student and teacher

A couple of weeks ago my friend Bryce Bunting argued that risk is essential for learning on his blog Musings from an Amateur.   Bryce's point is well-taken.  Risk often heightens learning because it demands greater focus from students.  And it is true that schools often avoid risky moments and so limit student learning.

It is worth wondering why schools are risk-averse, avoiding moments where students are held up for public scrutiny.  (Public scrutiny is a key part of risk in Bryce's formulation.)  I think there are two reasons: first, risk entails the possibility of public failure, and second, most students lack the sort of relationship with peers and teachers that make risk and failure into ways to learn.  In the absence of these relationships, failure leads to humiliation or to punishment.

As I was thinking about risk and failure, I came across this article at There, Bonnie Myotai Trace argues that:

In order to work with a teacher, there needs to be a student. We often skip over this: It’s easy to waste time going through the motions of entering the room for a face-to-face teaching, but to not really be a student—to just be someone who wants to debate, or to prove something. Often, a real spiritual meeting is not available even though the bows have been made. Yet once a student develops, it is inevitable that a teacher will appear in their life. They create each other.

This is an interesting notion--that students create their teachers by the level of preparation, focus, and practice they bring to the learning setting.  A poorly prepared students creates a teacher who focuses on that poor preparation.  A well-prepared student gives rise to a teacher who can guide and shape that student.

Of course the relationship works the other way as well--a prepared teacher can help create a prepared student.  So what does this imply for the possibility of creating risk that results in learning?  That teachers and students must both be practicing risk, and that that risk-learning must be done in public.

This is a rare thing in the classroom--faculty often take risks, but much more frequently in writing or among peers than before students or in the classroom.  So how do people who care about student learning create a learning environment that favors risk?  Is there anything to be learned from religious practice (the student-teacher relationship in Buddhism is the context of the quote above, and the rest of the article has plenty of suggestions about spiritual practice and learning)?  From innovative corporations? (WL Gore and Associates, the namesake of the Gore School of Business, celebrates failure as a key component of innovation.)


derek bitter said...

So what exactly does risk look like in the classroom? Both from the teacher and student? Is it simply making our work public? Letting people know that we don't have all the answers? I know what risk looks like in lots of other places, but not as much in the classroom. I read Bryce Bunting's blog post as well, but still have the same question. Maybe you or he can comment on this.

Bryce said...

Derek, thanks for calling me out on being a little vague in my post. I'll need to do some more thinking on what exactly risk-taking looks like (expect a future post on that), but some thoughts that come to mind immediately (some of which Derek already identified):

For Teachers
- Moving away from command & control teaching, to approaches that allow learners to make decisions about their learning, identify some of their own learning goals, organize their own resources for learning, etc. (The risk comes in that this sort of thing can get messy and chaotic, but I'd argue it leads to good learning when facilitated in the right way).
-Being willing to say "I don't know" when students ask good questions that we don't have answers for.
-Experimenting with innovative pedagogies/technologies
-Avoiding the tendency to teach to the test

For students
-Making learning public
-Focusing more on learning rather than grades/achievement
-Being okay with making mistakes or failing early in the learning experience.
-Asking for & welcoming feedback

This still isn't as thoughtful or specific as it probably should be, but it's a start.

derek bitter said...

Thanks Bryce. It is a good start. I would just add that it should definitely start with the teacher, otherwise the students won't even know how to go about their own risk roles. But I also think that the teacher needs to go about all this, and everything he/she does with a certain approach that is convincing for the students.

In other words, I don't think I could walk into a classroom and follow these steps, or any others, and have them work for me and the class, unless there is something more fundamental present within me as a teacher. I have ideas on what this might be, but can't really narrow it down or even specify it. But if I had to then I would say two things that are very much connected, and they are already contained in what you've said. One is that the teacher see him/herself as equal with the students. This does not mean that the teacher should pretend to know nothing, but would, as you say, move away from command and control teaching and allow the students to create some of their own learning.
The other is humility, which needs to be present for the first thing to happen anyway. So when the teacher says "I don't know," it won't be a lie, but will also be accompanied by the willingness to learn more, and experiment/risk a little.
I only point those out because we all have our little things we think about when it comes to this stuff, and the underlining characteristics of what makes a good teacher is mine.
Thanks for your comments, and to Prof Daynes for letting us use his space. I'll be checking your blog post for more.