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“Failure is an option. Fear is not”: Creating a safe intellectual space for learning

5 min read


This month, SmartBlog on Education is exploring classroom design and management — just in time for the new school year. In this blog post, educational leadership professor Maria Boeke Mongillo offers five ideas for “constructing a space that supports possibilities rather than perfection.”

Film director James Cameron once said that young filmmakers should adopt the motto “Failure is an option. Fear is not.” His point was that in order for new artistry to emerge in his field, filmmakers have to take risks and explore the potential of their medium without worrying about whether the product is successful or marketable.

This struck me as a good motto for classrooms as well. To provide an optimal learning environment for students, teachers must create an intellectually safe space, where risk-taking is celebrated as much as getting the right answer. This type of learning space needs to be deliberately set up at the beginning of the school year and reinforced throughout the year, just as much as classroom layout and other rules and routines. So in getting ready to go back to school, here are some ideas to consider for constructing a space that supports possibilities rather than perfection.

Celebrate process and progress over product. Students in general want to please their teachers and are looking for and will respond to feedback from their teachers. Feedback, particularly during the process, is what drives learning. Students need to know where and how their strategies are effective, and where they are not, not just be given a grade that says whether they were successful or not in the end. Provide opportunities for students to share their solutions to problems, or to allow struggling students to share their work in progress and permit the class to help figure out where the mistakes and misconceptions lie. Be sure students know that constant progress is the goal, and that you will allow, and even expect, revisions.

Remember students need challenge to change. Students cannot learn to overcome a struggle or failure if they are not being challenged appropriately. They also cannot learn to persevere if given assignments that have only one clear right answer. Take time at the beginning of the year to assess your students’ ability levels. You can look into the previous year’s scores or grades, but students may change over the summer. Also, think about ways to offer students open-ended problems to solve, particularly those that have multiple steps and require time and modification to come to resolution.

Teach who you are. Parker Palmer, in his book “Courage to Teach,” states that we teach who we are. While we do have professional and personal lives and personas, they cannot be distinctly different from one another, especially if we are going to be successful and satisfied in our work. Relationships are at the heart of effective learning environments, particularly the teacher-student relationship. So participate in any getting-to-know-you or team building activities that you ask your students to do. Pay attention to their discussions about interests and experiences, and find ways to relate your own hobbies, sports and musical interests to theirs. Use stories from your own experiences to illustrate points or make connections to learning. By opening up, you show your students you trust them and you care. They will trust and care about you and your classroom space in return.

Model and mediate student interactions. Though we would like students to come to our classrooms knowing how to interact in socially appropriate ways, the reality is many do not. Children today spend more time interacting with screens than they do playing and socializing with each other. As a result, teachers need to clearly discuss how working in groups looks and sounds. Students need to see models and role play before they can get to the work of learning. They may also need specific strategies for conflict resolution. Students will feel safer and take risks if they know ridicule from others will not be allowed.

Include and engage. Teachers often include students in classroom rule writing, but how else could students be engaged in designing the learning environment? Consider letting students discuss and decide the classroom procedures for entering and leaving the classroom, turning in work, doing classroom jobs and other routines. Perhaps let students help in determining classroom layout and seating arrangements. Students feel safe in a place where they have ownership and a deep understanding of not only what to do and how to do it, but also the rationale for why they are doing it.

Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Our goal should be to teach our students to view failure in a positive light and as a catalyst for future learning, through our conscious effort to offer opportunities and safe spaces to make mistakes and persevere. This will set our students up for future success both in school and in the world beyond.

Maria Boeke Mongillo is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Central Connecticut State University. She has taught in school-leader and teacher-preparation programs at multiple universities, and facilitates professional development in elementary schools. She began her career as a first- and second-grade teacher, and is passionate about supporting early childhood teachers and leaders through research and advocacy.

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