This afternoon I am going to go and have some fun with the WCSU music department. Part of their program includes convocations twice a week, in which various student, faculty, and guest artist performances take place. I am going to perform with a group of talented students, answer some interview questions by the host, and take my chances on testing my very rusty sight reading skills. The chances of making at least one mistake are very high.
As I thought about this, and the many other things I have done just this week that had a high risk of error, it made me think about the idea of vulnerability in the classroom. Every single time a faculty member enters a classroom there is a high likelihood that some error will take place. It could be small – like messing up a due date – or larger – like getting lost in an equation we are trying to explain. These moments have the potential to shake our confidence, and worse, convince us to be risk-aversive in the classroom.
In the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion around the notion of “mindset” in education. There are a couple of important observations in mindset theory. The first is that people with a fixed mindset tend to see learning in terms of talent and innate ability. From this point of view effort matters to a point, but there is not a lot of room for change in our capabilities. We are either good at something or not. For growth mindset people, learning is indeed a function of effort and our talents can change and grow over time. (See Carol Dweck’s work for a more thorough explanation.)
Things that follow from these two perspectives are related to risk-taking. Students with a fixed mindset tend to be looking for right answers and are uncomfortable with getting wrong ones. When they do make a mistake, they are likely to see that as a function of their natural ability (or lack thereof) and simply dismiss their ability to find a right answer. Growth mindset is the opposite. Getting things wrong is the path to learning, growing, and improving.
It seems like the growth mindset is the better perspective for education. But, do we really cultivate environments where failing or making a mistake is ok? I’m not sure.
Some faculty are great about building enough assignments into their courses so that no single score is the measure of a student’s ability. This approach gives students the opportunity to drop lowest grades, or get a few low scores on assignments that are building blocks to larger things, with those larger things weighing more in the grade formula. Others offer opportunities to revise things, which certainly can encourage a student to get started on a project, even if confused, and then have the chance to do better with feedback. These are all good practices that encourage a student to try, even if they might make a mistake.
But there’s more to cultivating an environment in which we are comfortable taking risks or being wrong. We have to be role models for failures.
I think back to how frightened I was as a student, not wanting to raise my hand lest I be way off base in my response. My heart used to pound as I finally took the chance and there were even cold sweats involved. I was afraid I would look stupid. Eventually, I developed comfort in taking a chance on a response, but it wasn’t easy. I think some successes (right answers) and some helpful follow up questions from supportive faculty (for my wrong answers) built courage. Their probes helped me see errors as part of learning, not a condemnation of my skills. I went through this process of developing courage as an undergraduate, graduate student, and even at academic conferences as I ventured to comment on a presentation. I was truly terrified, but eventually pushed through and developed a habit of trying out my ideas.
In the classroom, I also battled the risk-aversive behaviors brought on by fear. In the early years, I prepared so many notes to be sure I did not make a mistake. Like most junior faculty, I was worried that I just didn’t know enough yet, and that I would be easily tripped up. Over time, though, I freed myself from the need to be perfect and, though still devoted to strong preparation, I frequently tossed out ideas that just did not work. This allowed me to laugh at myself with my students watching and, I hope, encouraged my students to be brave.
Now, as an administrator, I follow the same practice. I do research, develop proposals through lots of conversations with colleagues, and then send things out to our whole community for review. Some things are revised and adopted through that review; some are dismissed as bad ideas. I could avoid the risk of the dismissal and not have to steel my nerves for the negative comments, but I do not think it is good for our organization to wait for ideas to be perfect. Like the mindset we are hoping to cultivate in the classroom, I am hoping for all of us to become comfortable exploring ideas, building our ability to develop proposals, and have to courage to have them edited or rejected later. It is my best effort to cultivate an organization with a growth mindset.
Teaching, scholarship, and policy-making are inherently about vulnerability. Those of us who have made careers in education are always risking errors and making mistakes in very public ways. We are not able to edit everything out in a document in the safety of our offices. We have to perform and remember things in real time. Even our documents are open for edits and critique. It can be scary, but perhaps that is the point. If we want to support a growth mindset in our students, we have to believe in it for ourselves. We must embrace our fumbles and errors and our capacity to learn more, and we need to do it in front of our students. Then they might come to trust us enough to try out difficult ideas and learn from their mistakes.
So, here’s to embracing vulnerability. It is the fastest path to strength that I have found.