Beta: The Courage to Fail & Change

3312922051_580a6e9625_nMost of this post is actually a post I wrote over two years ago.  It’s interesting that you can write something and then forget about it, and then you stumble across it one day and think, “I forgot about this. I needed to read my own words.” The truth is, I needed to remember. And this is one of the reasons it’s important for us to tell our stories. Sometimes others need to hear them. Sometimes we need to hear them again. Because we forget. Because we fail. Because we get hurt.

For a long time, I’ve been a perfectionist. I’m tired of it. I’ve decided to live my life in Beta. Always incomplete. Always failing. Always trying to get better. What if our schools and education systems were in Beta? Learning by failure. I’d like to see a school division really embrace that motto.

What if our kids learned that failure is a good thing, something to be embraced, instead of something to be avoided like the plague.  What if teachers were set free to teach messy, fail often & “fail fast”, as Seth Godin says. What if we taught in Beta so that our students could tell us what works & what doesn’t? What if teaching & learning was a fluid process that was never finished? What if we co-created schools based on what works for our community?

I’ve failed a lot this past year.  And at first I felt terrible about that. I felt like a failure. I felt like a huge disappointment, and then I re-read this post:

I think all teachers must have times when they’re faced with the decision to continue on the safe road that they know, or radically depart on a way that they believe to be better, but the specific route and outcomes are unknown. At least I’ve been faced with this decision. And in all honesty, sometimes I’ve chosen the former, and sometimes the latter. Although for the last five months, I’ve consistently chosen the latter, and they have been the most challenging and fulfilling five months of my career.

What is the path I’ve chosen? Changing to a student-centered, skill-based, technology embedded classroom. A mouthful, I know.

One evening, last semester, I decided to take the plunge, and I haven’t looked back. Instead of a teacher-centered, textbook based Biology classroom, I shifted mine to a collaborative learning network. Instead of lectures, my students researched each unit. Sometimes individually. Sometimes in groups. Often they were responsible for teaching their peers. For in-class assignments, they often had to apply their knowledge to solve problems. Additionally, we created our own on-line textbook. How did it turn out? I’ll let you be the judge:

However, it still isn’t easy to change the new classes I’m teaching this semester. I continue to be faced with the same questions. Do I risk changing my teaching practices to reflect 21st C. skills and technology, or do I go with what is safe? Or in some cases, what is easier? Do I fall back on what I know “works”, in the most basic sense, even though deep down I understand it’s not what my students need or what engages them? Or, do I accept the challenge and move forward on a new path?

A voice inside my head whispers, “You don’t need to take this chance.” “No one will know, if you don’t.” I will. And that’s what matters. I know that if I don’t take this path, the part of me that is courageous is somehow diminished, and next time I’m less likely to do what I know I need to do. And I believe in all honesty that I’ll be failing my students.

Why do I believe in this?

My students need the kind of education that requires them to think critically, problem solve, and learn skills of collaboration, rather than memorize for an exam and forget everything the next day, or believe that there’s only one answer to a problem. In our 21st century world, any problem that is significant requires complex answers, none of them necessarily “right.”

Furthermore, the top 10 jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. How do we prepare our students for jobs that don’t exist now, that will use technology that hasn’t been invented, to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet? By teaching them skills, not solely content.

Content is easy. Google it. We live in a world where content is ubiquitous. And in a wi-fi, 3G world, accessible almost anywhere. We need to teach our students skills to be able navigate and make sense of such a world.

How am I doing this?

First, my science, technology, and English classes are paperless. This is a big change for me and my students. All the information for our class is housed on our wiki. My students are in the process of adapting to being responsible for their own education. Instead of having things handed to them, whether it be the answer, or a piece of paper with their assignment on it, they are now required to take initiative and access all the information they need.

This semester we’ve also switched from a traditional Holocaust novel study Q & A, to a framework that scaffolds group discussion. Some weeks they’ll meet in homogeneous groups, with those who have read the same book. Other weeks they’ll meet in heterogeneous groups, with those who have read a different book from their own.

Today was their first day of novel discussions. One word for it — painful. Many of my students lack the skills necessary for an insightful conversation surrounding their book’s characters and motivations. They’re not familiar with the kinds of questions that don’t necessarily have a right answer, let alone more than one. And so, haltingly and awkwardly, they answered the questions that were set out for them. Few poured forth deep, poignant insights. There was no critical dialogue. Yet.

Sometimes when we’re changing, success can look like failure

What did I do? I walked around the room and listened. And thought, “wow, there are easier ways to do this.” Easier, yes. Better, no. Even though I know what the beginning of this process can be expected to look like, it still feels like today’s class was a failure. But I know it’s not; it’s the first step in skill building.

I wonder how often, as teachers, we have classes that feel like failures, but they’re really not. Instead it’s a messy, awkward success, given the stage that our students are at. How often do we want the end result — engaged, articulate, deep discussions — without being willingly to do the hard work to get there? Instead of seeing all the struggling as the necessary first step, we see it as a failure and don’t try it again. I know I’ve been guilty of this.

I find in the beginning that it takes as much work for me not to jump in and rescue the conversations as it does for my students to have them. So today I walked around and listened, and told myself over and over, “This is painful, but next week it will be a little bit better. And the week after that will be a little bit better still.”

My students are in the process of developing the skills they need. It’s not quick. It’s not even efficient or easy. But it is necessary for their development as creative, critical problem solvers who will live, and work, in our complex world.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear — Ambrose Redmoon

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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14 Responses to Beta: The Courage to Fail & Change

  1. Howard Zugman, Pinole, CA says:

    Hi Shelley,
    I think that you’re absolutely on the right track. The road you’ve chosen for yourself and your (very lucky) students is certainly the more difficult (and usually unappreciated) one – and its hard for both you and your students. Perhaps some of your students will be worse off because of it and probably many will be far better off. No road will be best for all. I wish that I had even one teacher like you when I was a student. (Change that to one teacher that was even partly as insightful as you.)

    Keep at it . Please!

  2. Hi Shelley,
    Can I just say what a breath of fresh air your perspective is. As a teacher of the visually impaired and assistive technology specialist who works with all sorts of teachers, it is, unfortunately, rare that I get teachers to buy into the idea of technology as a way to reach their students. It takes outside the box thinking and failure. Thanks for being a model of vulnerability and courage to your students. I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly last fall and your blog entries remind me of the leader that she aspires us all to be.

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  4. What a great idea, I have tweeted this line, “I’ve decided to live my life in Beta. Always incomplete. Always failing. Always trying to get better.” and a link to this post as I will keep mulling over this idea and hope others will as well. Thanks for your beta thoughts.

  5. Once I read one of your posts (and at this point I don’t even remember which one I read first,) I started reading back through the archives, because everything you write, I have thought at one time or another. I’m currently an educator in a middle school humanities classroom of 7th and 8th graders, and my co-educator and I have started to bring our vision of a dynamic, student-centered, inquiry based classroom to life. Often in these early trials, it looks like a disaster! But each time we try something new, we learn a little more and see students begin to take charge of their education. We see the first steps towards more critical thinking, more innovation in problem-solving, and there is no way we can turn back. Personally, I have never felt so motivated to keep struggling, because my intuition tells me that this is what education should be, for the students and myself. I can’t wait to see where we end up next, and it is exhilarating to not know where that might be!

    Thanks for the wonderful blog…I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts!

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  9. Angela Wilson says:

    Hi Shelley,
    At my school we give out an annual “Golden Plunger” Award. Have faith, there are systems that not only encourage the messy, but celebrate it as well!

  10. Hi Shelly. I have referenced your work and this video in a blog I wrote. Here it is

    • Thanks for using my work. I really loved the authenticity & honesty of your post. It’s often our mistakes that we learn from the best. I wish that were different, but alas, at least for me, it’s often not 🙂 Please continue to share your work. It helps all of us reflect on our own teaching & learning.

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  12. ashleyfetterolf says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I have been struggling to organize my thoughts on inquiry-based learning and this post has helped me so much! As a para-professional in a high school library, it’s been super hard to stand back and watch teachers take the more traditional road of lecturing and testing, while students memorize and promptly forget. I LOVE learning, and I love the feeling of discovering, questioning, applying, and finally understanding a new idea. I want to be able to pass this feeling on to my students and I think that PBL and inquiry-based learning is the best way to do this. I’ll DEFINITELY be passing this post along to some of my colleagues in the future. Best of luck in the new school year!

  13. htillber says:

    Very nice post. I wish there were a softer word than failure. It sounds scary and doesn’t capture the positive elements. Risk, prototyping, experimenting, stretching, creating something new, iterative design– I’m just brainstorming what the other words might be. Of course, you are right to focus on the fear of failure, as that is what prevents people from risk-taking and being creative.

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