Why is it important that occasionally, teachers let students run headfirst into their own failure? I think one, is because students learn to grow from that failure. In reflection, they recognize the steps they took along the way. They become accustomed to hardship, develop grit and learn to rely on intuition and foresight.
Which is nice. But enticingly enough, I think teachers should do it because it makes their job easier. Here’s why:
Imagine a student who wants to brave the (metaphorical) ocean for (metaphorical) pearls. As a teacher you understand that the waters are deep, the current is strong, the sharks abound. And you would hate to see them drown (especially when you have to explain to their parents why you let them do so). So what do you do? Tell them not to swim it? No that would rob them their volition! Of course, you would tell about the depths and the currents and the sharks and then let them decide for themselves not to do it, right?
You let them brave the deep. Why? Because now you can actually teach! When the teacher allows students to pursue hope, they’re given courage. Often that courage isn’t enough. Often the water is deeper than we thought. But what is beautiful about that process of growth is students begin to take their ventures into their own hands. Rather than being walled in by limitation, the immensity of the challenge breeds excitement. And it's in the depths of the ocean, when the space between the student and the goal seems unbearably large, that educators have the most room to teach.
On land (metaphorically) you can tell them about the depths and the currents and the sharks, but when the student experiences it, true learning occurs. And when they’re in the water, the vastness of the ocean becomes apparent, and the limitless fascinations it contains becomes real. Often the students learn about possibilities the teachers themselves never would imagine. The teacher can remark more clearly about the sharks that surround them, guide them more carefully through the currents that tug them from their goal. What’s more, the students often will show the teacher with greater clarity the pearls they search for, and soon that ambition that drove them to the sea in the first place sparks inside the teacher as well. In that excitement of learning and growth and fascination and understanding the students will dive deeper than they could ever expect.
And then they drown. Metaphorically.
Now the teacher is gifted with another wonderful opportunity. After reviving the student (metaphorically), the student has so much more to learn! In reflection, the students can glean new insights from the process. They can reflect on how they swam and where, why they held their breath and how long before it ran out. They can reflect on how they perceived the ocean around them, the things they learned about it and how it helped them grow. And in this process of reflection, the students take their learning into their own hands. Soon the students will carry the burden of the responsibility of their own growth. As a teacher, your burden is lifted. You’ll never have to drag them to the water's edge.
That said, the last step often will be encouragement and the revival of hope. After drowning the students may be timid around deep waters. But after their learning is made clear, after their growth and progress is made evident, these students will break the last plane of limitation: the fear of drowning. If these students, bolstered by their new understandings, encouraged by their teachers, do not fear drowning in the ocean of knowledge, they will attain to pearls unimagined by the most experienced among them. And when they return, the teachers too can benefit from the pearls they bring. Metaphorically, of course.
But more importantly, sometimes, even though the teacher in all their wisdom and knowledge know a student is going to fail, they don’t. And students rely on that hope. When teachers acknowledge that hope, students have the courage to brave depths.
Often that courage isn’t enough. Often the water is deeper than we thought. But what is beautiful about that process of growth is students begin to take their ventures into their own hands. Rather than being walled in by limitation, the immensity of challenges breeds excitement. And it's in the depths of the ocean, when the space between the student and the goal seems unbearably large, that educators have the most room to teach.
Every year I took on projects too ambitious for my own good. And I failed often. But my teachers were teachers. They led me to greater understanding about growth from that failure. They taught me to be reflective in defeat.
Learn more about Learner-Perspective Coach Dayyan Sisson.
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