What is Tolerable Risk in Learning

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A good chunk of my adventures these days seems to have taken the form of following my daughter around on her adventures.  Work away in Barcelona.  Teaching in Viet Nam.  Most recently Taipei at Spring break.  By the time I arrive to visit her, our daughter, Larkyn, has scoped out the place and is able to plan a trip that encompasses the “must visit” spots. This of course included Taitung, on the south end of the island and Toroko Gorge.

I was amazed at how different Taiwan was from Mainland China.  Excessively polite people stop in the street to see if you need help with directions, line up to get on and off rapid transit and would not consider pushing.  Wilderness continues to abound.  Wild monkeys chattered as we walked to the beach.  The beaches were pristine and inviting, although swimming was often prohibited unless you were surfing.  Apparently too many people have died stepping into the shallows to take a selfie.  Coming from BC we promptly ignored this rule.  We sought out coral to check out the little fish, only to discover that the most venomous snake on the island, the water krait, also hangs out there.

Swimming back to the shore, what felt like a long reed, brushed against my leg.  No reeds in the shallows of the ocean.  Something that looked like a stick poked out of the water.  This particular beach had a lifeguard who insisted it was a stick.  This was vigorously agreed upon by my daughter’s boyfriend who had tired of all of the snake warning photos I had been sending every time they mentioned hiking.  At one point, my husband and I watched “the stick” bend it’s head to have a good 180 degree look.

By the time we reached the Toroko Gorge, I was not just worried about snakes but paralysed with fear at the thought of them.  My husband was determined that they would not prevent our hike into the gorge.  By this time, I was happy to enjoy the amenities of the luxurious Silks Place Hotel with the three different hot spring pools of varying temperatures and drinks on the rooftop pool deck.  The gorge surrounded us and I had no desire to leave.  But I was worried about letting my insistent husband go hiking alone, so off we went on our happy hike with me already ticked off.

The hike begins with a trek through a long, dark, damp tunnel.  A perfect place for a snake to be lying in wait.  On the other side of the tunnel, the sign.  Apparently wasps, and falling rock were added to the list of hazards.  And more dark, damp tunnels.  For the first time in my life, the fear overtook the wonder and the joy.  I spent the entire hike not awed by the beauty of nature, but consumed with the fear.  And angry to be in that situation.

I have been a risk taker for as long as I can remember.  You do something hard and then revel in the success.  Or you learn that flipping forward from the swing set is a bad idea and end up with a broken foot.  Or you dislocate an arm from rolling too fast down too big a hill.  Or need ten stitches because there just wasn’t enough land between the fence and broken bottle in the ditch.  These were absorbed as learning not a reasons to stop taking risks.  There was no anger than soured the experience.

For my older sister, it was different.  When she was 7 or 8 years old, she was doing the circuit with the other kids in the neighbourhood.  At one point, she fell off her bike, squished her finger and concussed herself.  She was done with the neighbourhood circuit.  She was mad at her stupid bike.  It wasn’t learning but a lesson.  She would not grow up to embrace risk but to be leery of it.  This was very much reinforced by our mother, father and step-mother who had adopted the stance that only calculated risks with a guarantee of success were acceptable.  Risk that might end in failure were for stupid people.

Risk taking has become a big part of the conversation about learning in education.  There is now general acceptance that if students do not take risks in their learning, then maximum learning does not occur.  There is now an expectation for students to risk failure in the pursuit of the learning process.  However in this equation, I’m not certain that we factor in student orientation to risk.  If the risk presented is too big, it threatens to overwhelm our more cautious and risk-adverse students.  These are the students who can’t get started.  The concept of risking failure is far from their understanding or comfort zone.  For other students, it is the grand leap that provides the challenge for them to sink their teeth into and explore the full extent of their imaginations.  These students need little front end loading to define and engage in project based learning.  Our quest as educators is to provide the scaffolding for cautious students to feel secure in their learning journey and for our adventurous students to feel the freedom to explore multiple pathways to finding their answers.  That is not an easy task.  It require is a trusting relationship with our students and an understanding of their family context.

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Brave Enough To Try

Over many of years as an educator, I have presented to many audiences in many capacities.  I’ve presented to students from Kindergarten to secondary, students at the university level, educators on staff and at professional development events, parents at PAC meetings or on school tours.  I have informed and entertained individuals to large groups.  I can throw a good party where everyone is invited.  I can fill in uncomfortable silences and make my guests feel welcome.


I was invited by Gabe Pillay to present at EDvent2017.  An event framed around the words of Cicero, “Learning is a kind of natural food for the mind”, promised an entertaining and thought provoking event.  The ideas came fast and furious.  What makes a fabulous restaurant experience?  What makes an optimal learning experience?

I had 5 minutes to quickly enlighten and inspire my audience.  The challenge from my friend and SFU colleague, Linda Klassen, was to try the Ignite format based on the Japanese PechaKucha .  Twenty slides advancing with a timer.  She did warn me about the challenge of maintaining the timing with the slides and the talk but assured me I was up to the challenge.

I loved the thinking around the idea of a menu for meaningful learning.  On Spring Break, the ideas came together on the beach in Vietnam.  Choosing the slides was fun. The big challenge for me  was being concise.  As I’ve told many of you, when my Auntie Myrna said “What’s your story, Morning Glory?”,  I included a well developed plot with all of the details.  Words had to be cut right, left and center.  Every word that was uttered, mattered.  Of course, it didn’t help that the slides and timing were submitted long before I finished changing the script.  If only I had followed the advice frequently given to my students to leave lots of time to practice.  I stopped scripting talks long ago because I thought it made me sound stilted when I talked.  In this format, I needed to relearn the art.  Scripting was imperative to maintain the timing. My Grandmother singing Rambling Rose was in the forefront of my mind.  I needed to focus.  To be specific yet still…inspiring…entertaining.

With every risk comes the chance of failure.  When self doubt triggers, it multiplies exponentially.  I am a big picture thinker with imagination which in cases like this does not help.  I am on the slate of presenters who I respect. I step up to the podium with a real sense of regret I hadn’t finalized in enough time to memorize the talk.  Why am I doing this again?  I scan the room and consider the worst case scenario.  Yes, I was that nervous.

In 5 minutes, it is all over and I am free to truly enjoy the rest of the event complete with inspiring speakers, yummy appies, hilarious Iron-EDU-Chef challenges and the infamous Candy Bar.  This risk taking endeavor has perhaps not been as inspirational as I had hoped for but has allowed for a connection with the audience and an experience to reflect on.

As school leaders we welcome, encourage and prompt our staff to take the risk to try something new on a regular basis.  The new curriculum in B.C. commands not only new ways of approaching established curriculum  but new ways of thinking.  Yet, it is easy to forget the range of emotions engaged by the process of taking risks.   It is an act of courage to try something different.  It is an act of bravery to do it repetitively.  Every now and then I think we all need to try something that scares us enough to remember the extent of that bravery!  Kudos to our teachers who do it everyday!

Fear Not! Lessons from Astronaut Chris Hadfield

  • Artwork by Lyon – Gr. 3
  • Reason2Ponder:  This featured weekly blog post is intended to consider some of the big questions and possibilities that exist in education and learning in the 21st Century

Reason2Ponder #1 – Fear Not!  Lessons from Chris Hadfield

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I remember as a very little girl, seeing the television screen filled with the pictures of the first moon walk.  Seemingly endless footage of not a lot happening.  Yet, for many years, Neil Armstrong was THE astronaut.  In later years, I was somewhat disappointed that he couldn’t have reference his giant step for everyone (not just man), but still he was a key player doing something that mattered.  His place was not questioned until Commander Chris Hadfield brought space into the classroom.  Here was a man that could validate the dreams of a 9 year old can come true.  He was also able to recognize the significance of engaging adults and children alike while he was in space via twitter, video, and music to communicate and inspire.

It is no wonder that educators flocked to hear him speak in Vancouver, B.C. in February at the FISA BC Conference 2016.  Although I was only able to participate via Twitter @CarrieFroese @Cmdr-Hadfield, one of the TedTalks 2014 links was particularly inspiring:  Chris Hadfield – What I learned about fear when I went blind in space.  He explores the notion of looking at the difference between perceived fear and actual danger.  One of the things that he emphasized in his talk was the amount of time spent on practicing for the possibilities that could unfold in space.  He discusses our ability to change our primal fear and come out with a set of experiences and a level of inspiration not otherwise possible. This is what allowed him to proceed calmly even when he lost sight in both eyes when he was outside of the spacecraft.  As an educator in the midst of some major changes in the way we do school, it is not difficult to identify much of the fear and trepidation moving forward with the redesigned curriculum.  However the take-away from Chris is that we have a huge amount of experience as learners and working with children and curriculum.  There is often fear in the midst of change.  However our background knowledge, broad range of experience, extensive research and our collaborative skills put us in good stead to forge the path so our students are well equipped with the ability to navigate successfully through the demands and realities of life in the 21st century.

Chris Hadfield finishes using the music and lyrics of David Bowie to inspire us to take our own self perception to a new level.  Fear not, my fellow educators.  We are ready to navigate successfully on our present course.