Allowing Some Risk

Sometimes a student’s concept fails and that was scary at the beginning. "I designed this so what happens if it fails?" So I ask, "okay, so what happens if it fails?" They say, "I’ll get a bad mark". I say, "Why would you fail if the experiment fails? We learn from failed experiments. It’s okay to get it wrong if we learn from getting it wrong". Once I heard a student saying, "Wow, did we ever make a lot of mistakes in this assignment! Did we ever learn a lot!" The learning piece is there as long as they feel safe.

– Elementary teacher

As teachers, we are committed to building student confidence and ensuring their success. We put endless time and effort into preparation for our work with students in or outside of the classroom in order to meet this goal. Giving the reins of control over to students, letting them direct their own learning or extracurricular initiatives, can sometimes seem like a recipe for failure.

In fact, failure may well be an outcome when students (or adults) make all the decisions and do all the planning. Perhaps, in the long haul, failure is not the disaster we anticipate.

When we let students assume responsibility for their learning, interests and choices, we are letting them take the risk of failing. If they succeed, of course they will be likely to feel a surge of self-confidence and their learning will be evident. If they fail, this provides a rich terrain for learning, which we are in a prime position to facilitate.

We can conceive of our school as a laboratory, a safe place where students can take chances and explore leadership opportunities, where the risk of experiencing harmful consequences is low. This liberates students to try new things and take a leap of faith, knowing the benefits will far outweigh the risks.

At the same time, it can liberate teachers as well to take more risks (when these do not contravene policies or compromise student safety) and to share responsibility with our students. When we are at a juncture where we can influence a situation, veering toward or away from potential learning with some risk, we can choose the path of empowerment in dialogue with our students by:

  • Talking through a "risky" venture: When students approach us to propose a project or an activity that we deem to be “risky”, we may be tempted to discourage them. Rather, we can use a problem-solving approach to encourage students to creatively brainstorm possible options and to weigh their risks and benefits. Then, students will be able to make an informed decision, assuming the responsibility for any risks they choose to take.
  • Emphasizing the process over the product: So often as teachers we put our heart and soul into our students’ projects, putting all our efforts into ensuring their success. Placing more emphasis on a successful outcome than on students’ role in arriving at that outcome can result in a missed opportunity for multi-dimensional learning, leadership and empowerment. When supporting students in organizing an event, realizing a project or implementing an activity, we can strive to let go of our own need for success, relinquishing this responsibility to our students. Instead, we can divert our energy into our role as facilitators and cheerleaders, ensuring our students have all the information and resources they need to take action as they so choose.
  • Diversifying leadership: Ideally, students have input whenever student leaders are chosen. In reality, adults are often in a position to make decisions about which students will pursue leadership opportunities; for example, participating in leadership training or camps, or taking on other leadership roles within the school. In the course of our daily lives we make an endless stream of big and small decisions related to student leadership through the delegation of responsibilities. When we are in a position to influence decisions around student leadership, we can reflect upon those students toward whom we gravitate, and those we tend to overlook. Are there students whose qualities and potential as leaders are less evident? Are there students who are experiencing difficulties or social marginalization who may benefit from a skill developing opportunity? We can remind ourselves that we can be adult allies by supporting the development of leadership qualities in students who do not appear to have the characteristics of "typical leaders", traditionally viewed as "most likely to succeed".

Student leadership should not be limited to the few; each and every student in our schools should have opportunities for leadership.

Finding Common Ground, p. 23

  • Re-framing failure: When situations inevitably arise in which students make mistakes or fail, we can help them re-frame the experience, holding them accountable (with empathy and non-judgment) if they renege on their responsibilities, and supporting them in processing their mistakes and learning from them. We can notice our language and ensure we choose words and phrases that are positive, optimistic and non-judgmental, positioning the experience as a learning opportunity. We can also model the positive framing of failure through our own response to our own mistakes.

To fully assume their personal and collective power and to increase their personal agency, young people need a wide range of skills, information and resources. Perhaps more importantly, they need a sense of responsibility, as well as optimism and perseverance, fed by a belief in their own capacity and potential for learning and achievement.

As adults, we are in a position to use our influence by sharing our power while creating safety, offering support and facilitating students’ leadership, achievement and empowerment. It all starts with our genuine and unshakeable belief in young people’s wisdom and capacity to take action and to bring about positive change.

  • In what way am I already fulfilling the role of an ally and a facilitator of students’ empowerment?
  • In what other ways could I expand my role in this regard?
  • In my school or classroom, are there choices students can make that are currently being made for them?
  • How am I prioritizing the process as much as the final product?