George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Try: A Little Word Becomes a Big Gift

Taking a risk can pay off in exhilaration, affirmation, and inspiration. Step outside your comfort zone to improve your practice and grow as a teacher.

May 2, 2016
Photo credit: ©HeroImages/500px

Taking risks is invigorating! It's a gift that you give yourself. The newness is refreshing and energizing. My personal philosophy is "Learn Forward" -- moving with forward momentum, embracing each season, and experiencing life with a sense of adventure. My heart is filled with the hope that you'll give yourself the opportunity (and gift) of taking a risk, learning, and growing.

Carol Dweck's research teaches us how invaluable a growth mindset is in our culture. I want to get really practical with that research. Here's the big idea:

When was the last time that you tried something for the first time?

Besides being a great conversation starter at your next social event, this question encourages us to consider the gift of risk taking. It's exhilarating, challenging, and stimulating. I don't care if it's jumping out of an airplane or trying a new instructional strategy -- your true potential is unknown and unknowable. So isn't the risk worth the possible growth that you might achieve? Give yourself the gift of trying something new.

Rising to the Challenge

This winter, I tried something new -- the challenge of doing a webinar. While I love technology and use many apps on a daily basis, I'm not a techie. I practically break out in hives when something goes wrong. So trying to manage a live webinar was not high on my list of "things I want to try some day." But I conceded to try, and I designed some content for parents. Then I launched my first webinar about ten days before Christmas, because I hoped there would only be a few faithful fans joining me virtually -- you know, those who would be gentle with my risk taking.

After my first webinar, I decided I could build on my brief and understated experience. I chose one of my favorite topics: cultivating cultures of community in schools. While writing content with passion, I enjoyed living in my comfort zone. But then, each time I taped the "Webinar in Progress" sign onto my office door, I shuddered. Over the next six weeks, I did three more webinars. Was it an overnight success? Nope. However, I now have webinars under my belt and some high-quality content developed in a unique format that allows educational leaders to access it and use broadly with their teams.

What might be a more important outcome is that I tried something new. I was challenged and curious. I remembered how it felt to be a learner. I engaged in the same process as the teachers on my team, the students in my classrooms, the parents in my community. I was forced to learn forward. I still have tons to learn about webinars and all sorts of online content, but the learning process and growth mindset are fresh. I feel renewed in my work and willing to try again.

Pedagogy, Parents, and Personalization

In Adam Grant's 2016 TED talk, "The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers," he states, "If you look across fields, the greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they're the ones who try the most." That significant little, three-letter word is try.

Of course, each of us is in a completely different space in our professional development. We need to take risks in different ways aligned with our hopes and goals. What I know for sure is that it will be a great gift of renewal and inspiration.

Here are a few ideas for taking risks in education:

1. Try a new pedagogy.

Pedagogy is the method or practice of teaching an academic subject or theoretical concept. We are pedagogues, yet we can always try new methods or practices and take risks. It will be out of our comfort zone and might even be scary. We won't feel like an expert, but it might be exhilarating, and who knows what our potential is? What new pedagogy can you risk? Project-based learning? A new technology? A different assessment method? Student-led conferences? It's a great gift that you can give yourself (and Edutopia has a brilliant library of topics).

2. Try to connect in a new way with parents.

A teacher friend recently described her celebration ceremony with parents and students -- a banquet that was literally chicken soup for the soul. While it took some effort to explain why cupcakes and candy weren't included, her homemade warmth and nourishment came in bowls of hearty chicken noodle soup, giving reverence to the learning.

Her story offers an example of taking a risk with parents. Maybe your risk is creating an opportunity to build a connection with an immigrant family facilitated by a translator. Maybe the risk is inviting your parents to volunteer and contribute in new ways. Maybe it's a song, poetry, or a reading performance. The ideas are as diverse as the readers of this post. The risk will be rewarded with wonderful gifts.

3. Try to personalize learning.

It's a tall order to consider personalized learning. We aren't totally sure how to accomplish it. We understand differentiated learning a bit better. In my region of the continent, "personalized learning" is becoming a common buzzword that we're all trying to figure out how to achieve. What I know for sure is that we'll need to take some risks in our instructional design and planning, empowering the student to be responsible for his or her learning.

Recently I heard Charles Fadel speak at a conference, encouraging, "We are underestimating the capacity of our students to design their own learning." What if student engagement, learning, and achievement increase when we personalize the experience even further? What if the students love it? I encourage us to be willing to try. Tell your administrator what you're working on or find another encouraging thought partner.

Courage to Try

The gift of this little three-letter word, try, is that you'll automatically have a story to tell your students. You can write the word on the whiteboard and share risks that each of you is taking this week. It will be a wonderful celebration of learning, with magic enough to encourage every teacher's heart. We'd love to hear about your efforts to try something new in the classroom. Let's create some positivity with tweets about the #couragetotry. And also feel free to respond in the comments section of this post.

Journal Questions

  • Describe the last time that you felt energized when you tried something new in the classroom.
  • Why were you energized by that event?
  • How could trying something new be important for you this season?

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