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It is in being a mediator that students learn and internalize the skills of conflict resolution.


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T H E S K I L L F U L T E A C H E R420


Table 16.1 Five Beliefs That Underlie Risk-Taking

Positive Beliefs Negative Beliefs On errors: Mistakes can help one learn.

On errors: Mistakes are a sign of weakness.

On speed: • You are not supposed to understand everything

the first time around. • Care, quality, and perseverance count.

On speed: • Speed is what counts. • Faster is smarter.

On getting help: Good students solicit help and lots of feedback on their work.

On getting help: Good students can do it by themselves.

On effort and ability: • Consistent effort and effective strategies are the

main determinants of success. • Everyone is capable of high achievement, not just

the fastest.

On effort and ability: • Inborn intelligence is the main determinant of

success. • Only the few who are bright can achieve at a

high level.

Table 16.1 shows the five beliefs introduced in Chapter 14, “Expectations,” that underlie risk-taking. The positive beliefs are life-liberating, the negative ones are life-limiting.

This risk-taking dimension of classroom climate concerns the amount of confi- dence a student has and the amount of social and academic risk the student will take. If it is well developed, a student might be able to say, “It’s safe to take a risk here. If I try hard, learn from errors, and persist, I can succeed.” There remains a need to collect specific strategies and approaches for nourishing student risk- taking. Some authors acknowledge the importance of risk-taking but seldom explain how to cultivate it. For example, Lampert (1990) writes, “A big piece of teaching for understanding is setting up social norms that promote respect for other people’s ideas. You don’t get that to happen by telling. You have to change the social norms—which takes time and consistency” (p. 26).

Here is another example. In a wonderful exposition on the practices of exem- plary teachers who use cognitive strategies to move students from novice to expert in their problem-solving in various disciplines, Bruer (1993) writes:

The benchmark lesson on gravity begins 6 weeks into the course. By this time Minstrell [the teacher] has established a rapport with his class.



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He has created an environment conducive to developing understanding, a climate where questioning and respect for diverse opinions prevail, a climate where the process of scientific reasoning can be made explicit and self-conscious. Even veteran teachers marvel at how uninhibited Minstrell’s students are in expressing ideas, suggesting hypotheses, and arguing positions. (p. 42)

How does Mr. Minstrell get his students to be so uninhibited?

A few days later, Minstrell and the class analyze their reasoning about the time it would take a 1-kilogram and a 5-kilogram object to fall the same distance. They run the crucial experiment—a miniature replay of Galileo’s apocryphal experiment at Pisa. After both balls hit the floor simultane- ously, Minstrell returns to the board where he had written the quiz an- swers. “Some of you were probably feeling pretty dumb with these kind of answers. Don’t feel dumb,” he counsels. “Let’s see what’s valuable about each of these answers, because each one’s valuable. Why would you think heavier things fall faster?” (pp. 43–44)

Now we are beginning to get clues about creating this uninhibited atmosphere. Here is a final example acknowledging the importance of risk-taking:

Inquiry teaching is difficult for teachers and requires skills that must be developed through intensive staff development. If a student whose an- swer is challenged does not trust the teacher, or the other students, the follow up question, intended to cause the student to think more deeply about the subject, may have the opposite effect. The student may inter- pret the follow up question as a clue that the initial response was wrong and that he or she is about to be made to feel foolish in front of the rest of the class. Threat seems to reduce our ability to think at higher levels, and what could be more threatening than public failure and ridicule?

For this type of instruction to be effective, a teacher must create a class- room environment where students feel safe to express their thinking, where they trust their teacher and fellow students, and where they un- derstand the difference between criticizing ideas and criticizing people. (Ellsworth & Sindt, 1994, p. 43)

This interpretation of the effect of removing threat—the threat of being laughed at, feeling foolish, or being wrong—is resoundingly confirmed by research on brain function (Sylwester, 1995). What then can we say about specific ways to strengthen the climate for risk-taking?



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Normalizing Errors

Americans tend to believe in the fixed, innate, and unalterable nature of intel- ligence. Most children learn early in school that mistakes are signs of weakness instead of data to use and an opportunity for learning. Cultivating the latter be- lief about mistakes is the very foundation for confidence and risk-taking in the classroom. Thirty years ago, Jerome Bruner (1979) represented this idea when he said that a teacher’s goal should be to help students “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment, but as information” (p. 90). People who succeed in building this element of climate do so explicitly. Beverly Hollis, a reading teacher in Sudbury, Massachusetts, writes:

At the beginning of the year, when students are reticent to answer and wait time has been exhausted, I ask my class, “Is this a life or death situa- tion? No, well, so what if you’re wrong then? This is one answer out of the trillion you will give in your life, so what if it’s wrong? If it is wrong, I guar- antee I won’t let you leave until you’ve heard the right answer, and you’ll probably remember the information much longer for having missed it. But most importantly, you will have taken a risk by giving an answer. So many insightful answers and comments are never made and, therefore, never discussed and further explored because you, as students, are afraid to be wrong. I don’t want that to be the case in this room.”

Having the ability to (1) risk being “wrong,” (2) maintain a positive self im- age if you are “wrong,” and (3) move on rather than dwelling on a “wrong” answer are essential attributes for success, not only in school but through- out life. I talk with my students about risks in my personal life—my month- long wilderness canoeing trip—and risks I’m taking by teaching a concept or a unit in a particular way. I’ll say, “I want to try something new I’ve learned in a class I’m taking, and I need your feedback.” I always ask for my students’ feedback after every unit. I tell them they can say they dis- liked a particular approach I used on the material covered as long as they offer positive criticism in pointing out what they didn’t like and why, and if they offer alternatives or suggestions of what I can do to make it better. [Notice that in letting students critique her units, Ms. Hollis is giving them power.] I also give them choices about how they want to learn a particular unit and ask them to tell me why this would be the best approach to take. They love having “the power”! They have been incredibly perceptive, and as a consequence, they have been very accepting of my high expectations and my criticism when they fall short of the mark. I have students earn ex- tra credit points to improve their grades on tests by listing what they were mixed up about or how they “messed up” on a test answer and what they learned. And I openly and readily admit my own mistakes.



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Hopefully, this climate of honesty and risk-taking allows me to correct students and myself without any of us feeling guilty or stupid for having made a mistake. (Used with permission from Beverly Hollis.)

Anna Shine of The New England School of English in Boston says:

One of the behaviors I encourage is making mistakes or guessing. I tell my students that I don’t care if they are wrong, but I do care if they don’t try, that there is no shame in trying and making a mistake or in falling short of their goals, but there is shame in not trying. And worse than shame, a learning opportunity is not maximized. Again and again, I say to them, “Mistakes are not important; understanding is.”

Obviously, students will not take risks unless it is safe to do so. So, in my classroom, I try to create this environment, to make it safe to make mistakes because students can learn from mistakes. In fact, I reward students with big (two inches in diameter) gold stars in two situations. One is if they produce great work, and the other is if they produce great mistakes.

On the first day of class, when I show them my gold stars, they look at me as if I’m crazy. “A gold star for a mistake?” they think. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing.” However, they soon learn that a gold star mistake is a mistake from which every student in the class can learn something. By making this great mistake, the student has provided everyone with a new learning opportunity, and the student himself has learned that it is safe to take a risk. By taking that risk, he grew (his knowledge and his confidence), the class learned, and he received one of the coveted gold stars. (Used with permission from Anna Shine, founder, The New England School of English.)

In a similar vein, Terry McCarthy of the North Pole Elementary School in Fair- banks, Alaska, gives “bravery points” to students who have the courage to try hard questions or problems even if they’re not sure they can get them. In these and other ways, thoughtful teachers deliberately create and nurture climates of risk-taking and safety to make errors.

Care and Perseverance Versus Speed

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