The Importance of Academic Courage
Courage exists in math as much as in mountain climbing, and students can develop the courage to tackle academic and life challenges.
Destiny, a high school junior, stood at the whiteboard with her classmates huddled close on plastic chairs, the back row sitting on desktops. She paused in the middle of writing a math solution and turned to the class. “I’m not sure this is right,” she admitted. “We chose a really hard problem, but our group thinks this works. Let me know if it makes sense.”
Jalen raised his hand. “I don’t understand. Can you explain those variables again?”
These students attend an urban public district school, the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts, an EL Education school. Ninety-eight percent of Springfield Renaissance students are graduating on time, and 100 percent of graduates have been accepted to college for eight consecutive years. What’s going on in this school that’s creating this success? Many things. But one of the most important factors is academic courage.
There’s a lot of talk these days in education about growth mindset and grit, which are important. We know that both grit and resilience are critical dispositions in successful students. But I want to suggest that we take these ideas a step further and talk about courage, which is something that students can intuitively understand.
Indeed, my eyes have been opened to a new vision of courage that we use in the EL Education network: differentiated courage.
Some people have mountain-climbing courage but no public-speaking courage. Soccer courage is different from musical courage; big-city-at-night courage is different from forest-at-night courage. We all have courage in certain realms and less in others. And we can all work on our courage where we need it.
Bringing this into schools can be transformational. Students in EL Education schools explain to me that they’re working on their science courage, their art courage, or their Shakespeare courage. Preschool students tell me they’re working on their talking courage. Beyond high-level mathematical courage, students describe to me that they’re specifically working on their fractions courage, their integers courage, or their calculus courage.
What does calculus courage even mean? It means you don’t hide in calculus class, pretending you understand things when you don’t, or pretending you’re too cool to care about the work. It means you take the risk to raise your hand and ask questions, to share your thinking with others, to take critique from peers. It means having the courage to choose difficult problems and risk mistakes. What I saw in Destiny and Jalen in that high school math class—that was academic courage. Learning doesn’t happen without it, and fortunately, it can be cultivated.
Start With the Teachers
Cultivating courage in students must start with teachers. In fact, the best way for students to learn it is for teachers to model it. One of the most successful schools in our network is Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, an urban K–8 school with a waiting list of over 2,000 families. Their success in mathematics is double digits above city averages on tests. That success does not come from a clever curriculum—it comes from the teachers.
Two Rivers school leader Jeff Heyck-Williams led the faculty for several years in a professional learning sequence to build their mathematical courage. They wrote their personal math stories—their own journeys as students when they developed their mathematical confusions and insecurities. They investigated their “math scars”—the damage to their math psyches that caused them to have fixed mindsets about understanding aspects of math. They worked together to relearn the mathematical content that they had never truly understood well as students, studying in differentiated groups. They were not, at that point, studying how to teach mathematics. They were studying mathematics, with courage, together.
Courage Is Contagious
Having gone through this process, the teachers returned to the classroom charged with excitement about really, deeply understanding the math they were teaching, and the misconceptions they had encountered. They had the courage to explain to their students how they held misconceptions themselves, and demonstrated how they had overcome them, using the math itself to tell their story. They modeled the courage that the students adopted.
Destiny and Jalen and their classmates meet in a small group every day—an advisory structure we call Crew—and use courage to share their personal and academic successes and challenges.
It’s hard to overestimate the value of courage—this broader vision of courage—in education.
For Destiny and Jalen, taking risks to explain their mathematical thinking in front of their classmates, the payoff of building courage goes far beyond doing well on classroom tests or SATs. They take the courage to step up across differences in race, class, gender, and neighborhood to support each other. They build the courage to succeed in college and life, and to give back to others. And they take that courage with them wherever they go.