When I was younger, I used to love to watch the television show Unsolved Mysteries. I still remember sitting in our basement with the TV on, trying to figure out about these strange things that happened in our world. It was probably during the same phase in my life when I loved books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I loved these types of things for a while until I didn’t. I don’t know if any of the rest of you went through a phase like that where horror and mystery were exciting. At the point I’m at in my life now, I don’t need fear like that – I have zero desire to read a scary story, or watch a horror movie… I can’t even get into the true crime fad that so many others I know love.
But it’s interesting to think about how much fear can impact us in our day-to-day lives. Most people, like me, have decided that they don’t want to put themselves in situations where they feel scared. That is something that is also true for many of our students too – they don’t want to go outside of their comfort zone, and often will do whatever it takes to avoid a feeling of shame or embarrassment. In fact, sometimes the behaviors that we see that seem outside the norm are actually related to their efforts to avoid shame and embarassment.
I think sometimes that fear of trying something new comes from a feeling of cognitive dissonance. You may know that phrase, but to make sure we’re all on the same page, cognitive dissonance is defined as having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. It’s not just our students who will try to avoid feeling embarrassed – many adults will do it too. It could be relating to something in our personal life, or it could have to do with trying that new classroom practice that feels a bit out of our comfort zone.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I believe that all schools are learning organizations. Part of what makes a school a learning organization is that all the people who come here – students, teachers, staff members, parents, etc., can learn something while they are here. So, let’s dig into that idea of learning for teachers and staff members.
A previous administrator that I worked with used to talk about being on the “growing edge.” To be on the growing edge, you must feel a little bit uncomfortable. Think about schooling – what it looks like today is different from what it looked like when I was in school, and that is different from what it looked like when my parents were in school. A schoolhouse is a place of innovation. As we learn more about how kids learn, we implement new strategies and see if they help our students. These small changes over the course of many years are part of what has caused the school to look so different than in the past. The more we know about how kids learn, the greater impact we can have on their learning moving forward.
And the things we do in our classroom, that are considered “best practice” are meant to put our students on their own growing edge. In a place where there is some feeling of being uncomfortable, they also must work to figure it out. In a lot of ways, our efforts to move our students to higher levels of thinking is considered best practice because it helps push students beyond their comfort zone. It helps them create new neural pathways in their brain, and suddenly they have learned something new!
But here’s one of the things I’ve noticed – so often we as educators will learn about something new relating to student learning, but we hesitate to implement it. Maybe we want to start implementing Universal Design for Learning, or maybe we have seen some amazing examples of Project-Based Learning out there on social media. As an educator, it might be something we’re curious about, but at the same time are relatively early in the learning process. This is where the fear of teaching can sometimes come in. Does this sound familiar: 1) I’m curious about a new strategy; 2) I have done a little bit of learning about the topic; 3) I want to try, but I’m just not sure where to start; 4) I’m worried it won’t go well; 5) I put that idea on the shelf and go back to what’s comfortable.
The thing I know about most teachers is that there are some personality traits that are similar. One of those similarities has to do with a desire to make sure that whatever we put in front of our students is as close to perfect as possible. I’m sure that there are times that I felt that way, and probably held back on some of my more creative and innovative ideas because they didn’t seem quite perfect. What I’ve learned is:
Here’s the challenge we face as educators – innovative ideas help to push learning forward for our students, but our own perfectionism might get in the way of trying something that would be a benefit for our kids. How do we balance the need for innovative ideas with our personal feelings that our school or our classroom needs to be perfect?
I challenge you to take a moment to reflect on some of your new ideas that you might have been hesitating to try. Pick one and give it a try. What’s the worst that happens? If the lesson is a flop, you can use it as a chance to model for your students that imperfection is ok. And if the lesson goes well, you might find some ways to take that idea, do it again in the future, and make some small changes to make it better.
Learning is all about being on the growing edge. Part of that cognitive dissonance comes from doing the things that scare us before we feel they are perfect. But, it’s how we learn, it pushes learning for our students, and it models risk-taking, which is something we are constantly asking our students to do!