Tolerable Risk in Learning Revisited

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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.

Understanding fear in the workplace is no less complex.  Amy C. Edmundson has written a great book called the fearless organization – Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (2019).  The author is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard School of Business School.  Edmundson’s life work inadvertently came out of doctoral research in a hospital considering errors in the practice of medicine.  The reach of the research became much broader with the discovery that when people work in a climate of fear, their ability to grow and innovate is threatened.  Brain research has given us considerable proof that the brain shuts down if a person is afraid.  This book provides a number of stories and examples from hospitals, the movie industry, NASA, Google, banks and classrooms to illustrate possibilities for framing workplaces that incorporate high standards with inquiry, candid communication, and a willingness to share mistakes, in order to encourage creativity, learning, and innovation.  There is a reason that this is a basic premise for software development since the first discovery of a “bug” in the programming.

Suzanne Hoffman, superintendent of the Vancouver School Board regularly uses sli.do in our monthly Admin admin meetings as a tool to solicit the thoughts of the group and to facilitate purposeful discussion.  I found the use of sli.do as well as paper/ pencil surveys and conversations including these questions very helpful in setting the tone of meetings. It allowed me differentiate between the areas I was able to address and take steps to provide opportunities for collaborative practices and funding issues:

What are you up against? What are your concerns?

What do you need?

What can I do to help?

I found the three inter-related practices suggested to create psychological safety very helpful for framing staff meetings:  setting the stage, inviting participation, and responding productively.  With repeated use they helped to develop a learning tone and step away the assumption that my role was to function as the top of a hierarchy and provide the answers or direction.

Staff presentations of their professional inquiries and background knowledge were very purposeful in encouraging collaborative practice and setting the tone of our monthly staff meetings.  The Indigenous inquiries by Janet Logie, Pam Schofield and Melody Ludski, provided the leadership in moving forward on our Indigenous goal in a meaningful way.  Michelle Jung came to the school to do a maternity leave at the Kindergarten level.  She was experienced and enthusiastic about the new reporting procedures.  She was instrumental in providing background knowledge and direction as we moved forward to adopt reporting procedures that are more in line with the newly implemented curriculum in British Columbia.

Inviting participation was most successful when the questions were framed carefully and there was a structure to facilitate collaborative practice and report back to the group.  The following suggestions from Edmondson’s book for attributes of powerful questions were very helpful in developing more thought provoking questions:

  • Generate curiosity in the listener
  • Stimulate reflective conversation
  • thought provoking
  • Surface underlying assumptions
  • Invite creativity and new possibilities
  • Generate energy and forward movement
  • Channel attention and focus inquiry
  • Stay with participants
  • Touch deep meaning
  • Evoke more questions

Learning to respond productively was a big growth area for me.  The hierarchy of the educational system puts the onus on the principal of the school to provide the answers.  It is a Catch 22.  You provide an answer.  It is attacked.  You become defensive.  You have lost.  Adopting a stance of appreciation, destigmatizing failure, and defining clear boundaries allows the group to get on with the learning.   I do believe “A fearless organization realizes the benefits of diversity fostering greater inclusion and belonging.” (p. 201).  It makes for difficult questions, but a focus on instructional leadership allows us as principals and vice-principals to benefit from the thinking of the whole group.  it’s just that old habits and expectations of ourselves die hard!

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The Beauty of the Monster Within

The black poster with the gothic lettering did not come under my range of awareness until the third morning that I woke up and crept on to the deck waiting for Taipei to wake up.   The garden space has been created on the deck at the top of the 72 stairs and emerges to claim its place in the world of Taipei rooftops.  A haven of plants, birds and secrets.  The black poster asks “What kind of monster have I become”?  It is positioned beside a photo on the beach of a pre-pubescent girl on a beach with a cigarette handing out of her mouth.   The picture does not reflect all that is “sugar and spice and everything nice” but the survival of a young girl who has experienced loss, betrayal and anger.  The image is not one of innocence but of Paradise Lost.

Beyond the protected garden paradise emerges the dichotomy of the old and new of Taiwan.  Tiny green leaves emerge and begin their climb towards the heavens.   Two shiny, stainless steel  water tanks stand over the tenuously placed air conditioning systems and rusting out sheet metal, cracked tile and dirty brickwork.

Two pigeons take their place above a small area of red, clay roof tiles beyond and look down on me.  The bird choice of my not quite related, paternal grandfather brings the warm glow of having been loved unconditionally.  Only some people are able to celebrate the contradictory elements of innocence and respect the quest to emerge beyond mere survival.  He lived dichotomies and he could understand them.

Traffic in the background is a steady, predictable hum.  No blaring horns.  No sirens. No persistent car alarms.  Warbling birds and tiny chirps are different from the plaintive seagull calls and crow scoldings of my usual life, but somehow familiar and calming.  A persistent sweeping of the broom establishes a rhythm.  Exercise for a higher purpose.  Cleanliness.  Godliness.

There is no fengshui in my morning alcove.  It is a creation of the mind where the green astro-turf under the table, the collection of textured, patterned and coloured blankets over comfy couches, butterflied and dragonflied pillows, real and fake plants come together with curios to feed the imagination.  The space is not beyond the possibility of dark, twisty discoveries and fabrications.

On my flight to Taiwan, my viewing pleasure included the movie creation of Mary Shelley’s life.  Many were disbelieving that an eighteen year-old girl could have authored such a book as Frankenstein.  The bigger discovery is that the girl had already experienced such despair, disenfranchisement and had personal knowledge of the monster within by the time she was 18 years old.  The Frankenstein book was made possible by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet she loved, her own loving father, a disapproving step-mother and the havoc they wrought with her heart and mind.  Her strength was her ability to name her monster, chew on it and use it to make sense of her life.

The paint bucket with clean white paint drips emerges from a hiding place behind a couch.  The ability to put a fresh face on the less than clean and sparkly.  Imagine the possibility.  Re-created the sense of self you want to project.  Yet, is aware of the monster that lurks beneath the surface that is responsible for teaching us how to be resilient.