Likely, you've heard me assert the term, "dignity of risk," if we've ever had any discourse about life-long learning in any respect whatsoever. It's a term that stockpiles deep significance in all aspects of my professional and personal life. Its significance appears repeatedly and in many forms. It's also been spoken about by a select few people in much more eloquent phrasing than I typically am able to utter.
In recent months, while auditorily reading a book in my car, I stopped to bookmark and highlight a section of notes (ask PATINS staff how easy this is to do). This particular section of text was describing a trip on a motorcycle through some especially harsh weather and trying conditions. One person was anticipating his partner needing to take a flight back, while another character argued strongly that, "physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong." That when the mood is wrong, one fastens tightly to the discomfort and calls that the cause. When the mood is "right," the physical discomfort carries far different meaning. The author goes on to say that arriving at the Rocky Mountains by plane is certainly one context, in which they are seen as pretty scenery, but to "arrive after days of hard travel would be to experience them in another way, as a goal, a promised land." Further, that you're "in the scene," rather than simply watching it. I liked this smooth and expressive alternative form of describing what I hold so earnestly as "dignity of risk."
Two years ago, at the PATINS State Conference, I had the distinct pleasure of spending some time with Daniel Kish, one of our keynote speakers. Daniel is brilliant, inspirational and he is blind. He navigates his physical environment partially by clicking with his tongue and then making determinations about his surroundings based on the reflections of sound off objects around him. Daniel hikes national parks, negotiates busy cities, and rides a bicycle. When talking about receiving the bike from his dad at a relatively young age, Daniel talks of the many risks involved in riding it and his thankfulness that his parents were able to grasp far more positives than negatives in this regard. He finishes with a line that I'll never forget, and that sums up "dignity of risk" in yet another marvelous fashion. Daniel says, "running into a light pole or mailbox is a real drag, but being denied the opportunity to run into a pole is an absolute disaster."
Thirdly, as a young teacher, I had the great fortune of knowing a miraculous little girl whom I'll refer to as Strawberry Shortcake. I have confidence she'd smile approvingly at this name since she referred to me as "Blueberry Muffins" on more than one occasion. Ms. Shortcake faced several challenges, but her olfactory sense was keen and she always seemed to know exactly what I had for breakfast. I also have her to thank for keeping a toothbrush in every desk I've ever kept since! Ms. Shortcake carried an outlook on life that inspired many and stuck with me. While many factors caused her to fall often, bump into things and people, and show up seemingly every few minutes with new bruises, she wore protective headwear and never slowed down. Adults would ask her things like, "What happens if you fall and scrape your knees again?" "That's a long way to fall, are you sure?" I would often just observe and smile as her response was always, "I'll just get back up and keep going." Fortunately, Ms. Shortcake had parents who also adored this life lesson she so often taught through the way she truly lived. She never let the negative what-if's slow her down or keep her from doing the things that made her happy and successful. She just, "got back up and kept running." In 2005, our little Shortcake with big inspiration passed away rather suddenly and unexpectedly from an unforeseen disease. This broke my heart and soul and nearly ended my career in education, until I genuinely internalized what she'd been teaching me and followed her lead. I was so very thankful that she'd fully lived every moment she had and that she never allowed others' fears to contain her love for experiencing life. ...I "just got back up and kept running," and at that time my realization of the deep importance of "dignity of risk" had an unshakable foundation.
Having now provided three brief synopses of just a few of the examples I treasure, my hope is that I've started to offer a more rounded view on what it means when I refer to "dignity of risk." When a person only has one choice, there's really never any pride in making that choice. When mistakes are not permitted (and encouraged) creativity is non-existent and true learning doesn't occur. I realize that may be a controversial and bold statement, but it's one I believe in strongly. It's also one that I feel applies unconditionally to education from a professional development perspective both in regard to student achievement and teaching strategy. That is to say, students AND teachers must be encouraged and supported to take risks for the purpose of achieving both academic results and dignity.
Consider two people, if you will; a scientist who has his own TV show on a set filled with a million dollars worth of equipment. He puts on a fascinating scientific demonstration of massively impressive proportions. Is what he's doing a scientific experiment, however? I'd argue that it most certainly is not, if he already knows what the results will be. The other person is a garage mechanic working on his motorcycle. This individual might turn on the headlight or honk the horn to see if the battery is working. This is, essentially, a more true and creative experiment. If the horn honks, the battery has been proven good. If trying to determine why the bike won't start, the TV scientist might call this experiment a failure because the bike still doesn't start even though the battery has been proven good. The garage mechanic realizes that an experiment is only a failure if it also fails to adequately address the single hypothesis being questioned AND/OR if experimentation stops at that point. The skilled individual moves on to the next single hypothesis and tests that, etc., eventually arriving at complete success. This notion of experimentation involves many "failures" along the route to complete success. It takes time, it may be frustrating, but success is nearly inevitable and it is definite once it's reached.
Teachers have to be willing, permitted, and able to teach differently, not just with different tools. They must feel supported by administration to be creative, try things differently, and scientifically test one hypothesis at a time, with understanding that there will be necessary "failures" along the route to eventual definite success. Teachers must be allowed and encouraged to experience dignity through risk. Students must be permitted and encouraged in much the same way by their instructors. Barring physical safety and destruction of property, of course, students have to feel supported to take risks in thinking about academic problem solving, about the tools that might allow them to circumvent their own barriers to learning, and about creative ways to arrive at a solution. The certain minor failures along this road ARE where great teaching happens. Superb instructors guide, shape, prompt hierarchically, and reach out their hand after every small set-back. This is where deep learning occurs. While I think that many would probably agree with this, I wonder if they truly offer the necessary support to those they are guiding that allows them the "dignity of risk" that is essential in this process.
My purpose at this point is to encourage administrators and instructors to utilize the PATINS staff, resources, and Lending Library, as your supports. We will be there with our hands held out after every step in your journey toward the "promised land." Try a new strategy or tool, take data, draw conclusions and then form an adjusted hypothesis and borrow something else from us. We are full of, "maybe you could try this next, here's how you could try it..." and we have so many items in our Lending Library for you to "honk" to "test the battery," before you move on to the next hypothesis. Embrace the "physical discomfort" from the perspective of knowing that those mountains will feel far different than if you'd simply flown to them. Remember that bruises will happen, but that "never having the opportunity to crash is a total disaster." Finally, know that "next year" might just be too late for some students. Start now with the notion that while creativity stifled by fear may feel safe, true greatness happens in "just getting back up to keep running," even with scraped knees.