Should learning be unsafe? As I consider the idea of unsafe learning, my answer would be a resounding yes. As confusing as it may seem, I believe that unsafe learning happens in a safe environment. Unsafe learning involves taking risks, making mistakes, and failure. Unsafe learning pushes the envelope of innovation and creativity. Unsafe learning challenges our students to push the ceiling higher, stretch their knowledge farther, and use content in new and exciting ways. But how do we create an environment that fosters this learning in our schools and classrooms? How do we facilitate innovation in a world that demands standardized tests, high stakes grading, and cultivates a fear of not being perfect? We have spent generations in a safe learning mode where a one size fits all model indicates fairness, and competition and grades are seen as motivation. We have a moral imperative to change this model and push learning to new levels, outside the traditional norms we have grown accustomed to – ‘out of the box’.
It begins with creating a learning centered environment – a safe place to try new things, grow, and improve. True learning cannot be high stakes, standardized, conforming, or perfect. Learning must be personalized and focused on the individual student and meeting their needs. The culture of learning must be conducive to collaboration and growth. Students must come in feeling comfortable, and leave feeling accomplished each day, while also sensing an urgency to work. The role of the lead learner is an essential one – behaviors and learning must be modeled. Educators must engage in unsafe learning themselves and model risk taking. Students must own what they are pursuing and engage in challenging work. This fosters the growth mindset essential for learning.
What does this look like in my classroom?
When you step into my classroom, learning is valued above all else. My students demonstrate proficiency and mastery of standards in a variety of ways. Standards are posted, discussed, and exemplified in the formative work we complete. I share my own learning in the classroom, successes and failures. Learning and thinking are facilitated while creating a safe haven for my students. Grades are only discussed when necessary – evidence and a focus on feedback for learning drive the experience. Redos and retakes are a normal part of the learning process, and each day is a new opportunity to improve. Once this safe environment is established, my students can dive outside of the box of traditional schooling without fear.
Our safe haven evolves throughout the year as I continually get to know and form relationships with my kids. Formative practice is differentiated by readiness, interest, and learning profile. Learning is happening in different ways, and at varying speeds in my classroom all the time. Student choice is essential for growth and carries many imperfections as my kids learn how to make good decisions about their learning and practice. At times poor choices are made, and it is my role to assist and guide, but not to mandate compliance. When we dictate behaviors for our students, we deny them an opportunity to learn. Failure can facilitate growth and improvement when it is handled properly. I let my students know that they will fail before they succeed, and that learning is a journey of progress and recession, of struggle, frustration, and achievement. Perfection is no longer a part of our goals, but rather proficiency and mastery.
How do you get your students to push ‘out of the box’ while helping them feel safe?