No-Fear Learning: Creating Classrooms for Taking Safe Learning Risks

by | May 11, 2017

Messy learning, discovery learning, risk-based learning; it has so many names but one simple focus, which is to make learners better than they were before. We like to call it “no-fear learning.”

Positive experiences happen regularly when taking learning risks in a classroom that has a safety net designed to support learners with meaningful and mindful assessment, proactive feedback, and room to grow. Taking safe learning risks in a classroom helps kids foster independent thinking, personal courage, self-esteem, strong questioning skills, and a sense of responsibility for learning. Above all, it helps them develop a desire to keep learning all throughout life.

So what does a no-fear learning classroom look like and how do we build it? Let’s start with the basics.

In order to not fear risk, we must make sure that our learners don’t fear failure. 

The Role of Fear in No-Fear Learning

The word “fear” obviously carries negative connotations for many of us, but we can really learn from it if we come to understand it. If we understand it, we can conquer it (or at least manage it), and understanding is what the no-fear learning classroom is based on:

  • Understanding our strengths
  • Understanding how we can improve
  • Understanding how to maximize opportunities for both

The best way to think of fear is by using the popular acronym “False Evidence Appearing Real.” Much of what we fear is generated by our imagination but also by our conditioning. For example, if we’re brought up with the experience that failing is bad and punishable, we’ll fear to do it. When our imaginations kick in and conjure up all the horrible things that could happen to us if we do fail, it makes it even worse.

Enjoy Embracing Failure

The no-fear classroom begins when a teacher creates space for risk by being willing to fail. Kristi Johnson Smith, a high school teacher, explains the creative way does this in an article featured on Learn NC:

“… Be willing to try something at which you are terrible, and insist that your students celebrate your willingness to try. I do this by using an old guitar to play are a horrible rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Let me be clear: I am absolutely awful, and it is a humiliating experience. But my students love it. Throughout the year, whenever a student is afraid to give a verbal presentation, participate in a group, write an essay or draw something on the board, I ask them if I need to bring the guitar back in to remind them that we all need to be willing to try. Their classmates usually encourage them to get involved so that they can avoid the cacophony that is my musical output.”

As Kristi demonstrates, it comes down to a willingness to take those risks in learning. Taking the first step, just getting started, is often the hardest part. Our fear of the worst cripples us and keeps us from discovering what we never knew we had in us. A no-fear classroom in which the teacher is willing to risk failure and learn from it paves the way for learners to do the same.


Make It Useful

Our learners must realize first and foremost that making mistakes is a necessary part of learning. How the mistake was made isn’t nearly as important as what they can learn from it, though considering its origin point in an open debrief can help them with the avoidance strategies they will build over time.

Biology teacher Helen Snodgrass approaches useful failure to promote no-fear learning in her classroom like this:

“When students first walked into my classroom this fall, many of them immediately noticed a large quote on the wall above the whiteboard: “In this class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.” “You want us to fail?” they all asked incredulously. While they were skeptical of my intentions at first, by the end of that first class period they were already starting to see how failure could actually be a good thing.”

In this sense, the fear of failure is removed from the word “go” by ensuring students understand that making mistakes is not only expected but encouraged. Our expectations for our learners must challenge them and support them at the same time. A useful failure mindset ensures they can take learning risks without fear of judgment or penalty so long as they are using those situations to find ways they can improve and excel.

No-fear learning is about making failure and facing fear part of a journey of continuing growth and progress, rather than an end point where learning can go no further. The skills we want our students to take with them beyond school are ones that are practiced throughout one’s lifetime with patience and diligence. We can begin by equipping them with the tools of understanding—understanding that embracing failure and overcoming fear are both a part of living well and learning even better.



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