Image courtesy of Ian Barbour
Many, many years ago, I spent five months travelling around the beautiful country of Australia. Of that time, I spent six weeks in the Blue Mountains just outside of Sydney in the small town of Katoomba. At the edge of town were The Three Sisters, a rock formation that towered over the vast and dense forest valley. I had the opportunity to meet a man who worked as one of the forest fire fighters in the area and he was telling me that there was a concern that the area hadn’t experienced a fire in many years. I found it odd that a fire fighter wanted a fire to come, but he explained that the longer it went on without a major burn, the larger and more difficult it would become to extinguish once it did. He also stressed the importance of fires in helping the forest regenerate and experience new and better growth.
It makes me think about how we control things in the classroom. Are we so worried about students ‘failing’ that we end up stunting their growth? Failure is such a poor choice for the classroom in that it makes a statement we made a poor choice or did something bad. It also leads us to believe that we have reached a point of no return. We should be looking at these times as something that wasn’t as successful, but not in a negative way. The truth is that we need those times where things don’t go as well, and it needs to happen regularly. We also need to see those as times of regrowth and something that can be redeemed. Just as a fire adds nutrients to the ground, these times of difficulty help new ideas grow. We need to create a safe place for this to happen. If we don’t, we only delay the inevitable. Then, when it does happen, it often causes a great deal of harm and is difficult to control.
So, what does this look like in the classroom? It will be different in each situation, but it is nurtured in a caring, supportive environment where students are free to make mistakes, take risks, and explore things together without fear of disappointing others. Look at how you do assessment. Think about how the power is distributed within the classroom. Meet with students on a regular basis. Collect evidence of their growth. Most of all, be real and open. Show them that you are just like them, vulnerable and willing to make mistakes.