What is “no-fear learning” and what does it mean for students? Messy learning, discovery learning, risk-based learning; it has so many names. However, the focus is the same which is to make learners better than they were before.
Positive experiences happen regularly when taking learning risks in a classroom that has a safety net to support its learners. Of course, by learning risks we don’t mean being reckless. Instead, we’re guiding our students to be adventurous and bold in their curiosity and interests. The goal is to make them feel safe while stretching themselves and stepping out of their comfort zones. We do this through providing 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, and strong questioning skills. In turn, this helps them develop a sense of responsibility for learning. Above all, they achieve 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 learn from it if we understand it. If we understand it, we can conquer it (or at least manage it), and understanding is what no-fear learning is based on:
- Knowing our strengths
- Pinpointing how we can improve
- Learning how to maximize opportunities for both
- Taking proactive action
- Debriefing our learning
The best way to think of fear is by using the 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 mistakes. When our imaginations conjure up all the horrible things that could happen if we fail, it makes it even worse.
Enjoy Embracing Failure
No-fear learning is established when a teacher models a willingness to fail. High school teacher Kristi Johnson Smith explains further:
“… 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 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 no-fear learning risks yourself. That being said, 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 where 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. However, considering its origin in an open debrief plays a role in building avoidance strategies for the future.
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 by ensuring students understand that mistakes are 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. As long as they are using those situations to find ways they can improve and excel, mistakes should be welcome.
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 they’ll practice throughout a lifetime with diligence. We can begin by equipping them with the understanding that embracing failure and overcoming fear are both a part of living well and learning even better.