Embracing risk and uncertainty

Sheela Ramakrishnan

“Think out of the box” is the common refrain heard from school heads, who have the onerous task of leading a team of conditioned minds to break the mould and nurture young minds to suspend judgment! It’s a long and arduous journey but one that we HAVE to traverse to break out of the colonial system of building followers. The new India is young and restless, eager to take centre stage in the world arena. She cannot afford to teach today’s children the way they were taught yesterday and hope to build leaders tomorrow.

The moot issue that practitioners face is – HOW does one think out of the box? The minute one gets out of the box – it involves risk! With no exposure to formal tools for creativity and working in a culture that abhors failure – it is no wonder that they take refuge in the tried and tested path as a better system. There is so much comfort in the riskless box!

This is the crux of the resistance to change. Change requires acceptance:
• That sometimes we FAIL to make the change.
• That failure is OK, provided we do not abandon our efforts to change fearing failure.

But for this mindset to set in and become a way of teaching, one needs encouragement and empowerment – one can dovetail into the other irrespective of sequence.

It was 1993. I was teaching in a leading school in Kolkata and we were in the throes of preparing for our Annual Day; in thinking mode to do justice to our reputation for good productions. Suddenly, crazy me felt that it would be thrilling to have a “live” crocodile (one of the characters in the play) glide across the stage at the appropriate time rather than show a shadow in the backdrop. The idea was met with the usual apprehensive nods…. BUT our principal who happened to be there at that time, quietly said – “Why don’t you think more about how it can be done? Let us give it a shot!” That encouragement got our adrenalin pumping and we DID find a way! The “crocodile” almost 7 ft long, was fashioned with a bunch of grade 3 kids crawling together under a beautiful costume made of coloured cloth, painted egg holders to give the scaly effect and a long tail and head to boot! Needless to mention it left the audience gasping with wonder and MY heart bursting with joy at the achievement!

That was my first tryst with experimentation – to not say NO, but to think WHY NOT?

Lesson number 1 – it is OK to fail is a mindset that we need to nurture. In a society that is obsessed with grades and success, one is always looking at results and not effort. Can we let our kids and ourselves too, accept that we need not be right or win ALL the time? A leadership with a mind that flows rather than a mind that is set, is critical for a school ethos to embark on experimentation. It was very reassuring to hear the head of the school, say, let us try…. and this in turn gave us teachers the courage and confidence to try new stuff. We also knew that he had our backs in case things didn’t turn out as planned. This was true empowerment. Edward De Bono talks of Rock Logic and Water Logic (self-explanatory if one matches the characteristics of rigidity and flexibility in each of those elements) – more of him later.

Here is the story of my next aha moment. One of my students had lost money from class – it was stolen. Since it happened inside the class, it was clear it was one of the classmates. It also happened to be Reports Day. As the class teacher, I was deeply saddened that in spite of all my imploring to own up, no one took the responsibility. In my disappointed state, I lectured my class on how futile it was to carry home fancy report cards with fancy marks if they did not have basic values of integrity and fairness. I also went one step further and announced that no reports would be given till the matter was sorted! It was only much later that it dawned on me that I was breaking a tradition in school – EVERYONE got their reports on the same day! I needed permission to carry out my punishment! With anxiety and worry writ all over me, I went to my principal and explained the story and what it meant if we did not carry through what was said. To my utter delight, he said – “Your stand is like an oasis in a desert, please do whatever you think is best. I will handle the parents!” My class did not get their reports that day. The next morning we found the money in the little box that I had put out on the table. We never asked who it was – it didn’t matter. The message was home!

The incident stayed with me as I realized that if one had conviction of the right values, the universe supports it.

Lesson number 2 – As an educator, we need to be convinced about our goals, ensure they are in everybody’s best interest. And if we are passionately willing to stick our necks out for that noble goal, we will surely have followers and supporters. Leaders are looking to back strong ideas! If we have our hearts in the right place, our journey in experimentation and risk-taking will be that much less lonely.

I am reminded of another incident that happened in class. We were doing volcanoes and I had built up the suspense in my class of grade 4 students to watch my clay volcano “erupt”. I was a novice then in conducting experiments for a class – I had just read the instructions. Imagine my plight, when 45 pairs of eager eyes were waiting excitedly for an eruption that never happened! The disappointment was evident. I told my children that I had made a mistake in the quantity of soda and vinegar for the size of the volcano we had. And it was a lesson for me and for them to ALWAYS not just read but also THINK about changes required for any task. If I had thought, I would have realized that the chemicals had to be based on the size of my volcano. I then went on to explain “dormant” volcanoes where it was possible that the volcano may have some activity inside, but it was not visible to us – some face saving!

But my students would remember that lesson long after… it showed them a side of their teacher that was not perfect – BUT one they could still love and respect. It showed them that it was human to err and learn from it. Isn’t that the basic meaning of experiment – to continue from failure to failure till you reach your goal? But though we talk about failure being a stepping stone to success, we do not quite implement the same spirit in our classrooms and assessment patterns.

We practitioners are usually not comfortable in displaying vulnerability or any sign of weakness – students therefore look up to us as those who never go wrong and want to be like us – never be wrong! How dangerous!

Lesson number 3 – Own your fears and failures if you expect children to be comfortable with theirs! If we wish to build a culture of innovation that births itself in uncertainty, we need to make fear and failure a part of the process … and enjoy them! Students need the support of educators to be vulnerable and educators in turn need leadership that supports this process. It is clearly a pyramid!

I am reminded of another mentor of mine who I was fortunate to be associated with – whose words ring in my ears EACH time I embark on something new – If you try, you MAY fail. If you don’t, you WILL. It brought home the importance of not giving up a battle even before it has begun. We need to place more emphasis on trying than on succeeding – and yet sadly while we laud the thought in theory, we do very little in practice.

Edward De Bono, the father of Lateral Thinking and Creativity, (I got trained in his tools after being a fan for years) talks about how creativity is not a gift, but a skill. This is such a reassuring thought where one largely views creative people to be just born gifted! De Bono debunks this completely by talking about Operacy along with Numeracy and Literacy – and compares creativity to riding a bicycle or learning how to type – they require practice. This suddenly not only brings creative thought within the reach of mere mortals but also places the task of innovation on everyone’s shoulders.

He talks about cultivating a PO mind (as against yes or no) – which thinks about PrOvocation, SupPOse, POssibilities, OPtions – where solutions and ideas are placed in a non-judgmental platform. These may be workable or out of the realm of apparent possibility. However, they are not rejected, but “harvested”. Using these apparently unworkable ideas as springboards, one looks to see how a workable solution can be created. Therefore if one keeps one’s mind in the PO zone, it lays the foundation to catch those millions of creative ideas that our logical mind overthrows. Here lies the case for risk taking – to take something that seems not so logical, turn it around and produce a brilliant solution.

Lesson number 4 – We need to train our students in creativity tools through Thinking Clubs. PO and many such creative tools have to be formally introduced into the school arena if we are to build the culture of experimentation so that creativity is not by chance but by design. Practice gives confidence to students to fearlessly experiment with creative thinking.

Here are some PO ideas for the title of this piece! Read PO to mean What IF …

  • PO a system where we reward Effort and not just Results? Something like – 65/100 for Effort and 55/100 for Results? This gives the student the confidence that if I continue trying, I will succeed.
  • PO a fixed time in the time-table for PO and such creative thinking tools?
  • PO a special time allotted just for harvesting creative ideas for daily issues?
  • PO same concept to be taught/presented differently each year?
  • PO a special time in school to ONLY celebrate our failures and what we learnt from them?
  • PO attempt something that seems impossible without the fear of failure?
  • PO Explore a lesson where Learning Outcomes move in an organic rather than a pre-determined manner?

Having made out the case for the role of leaders and their team, one cannot ignore another key stakeholder – which actually is one of the main reasons why we look for certainty in the system. The average parent in India looks at education as a means to a livelihood. Which in turn translates to security. Our country does not have an unemployment dole nor a decent social security system to rely on. To such a parent it is too much to accept that there can be any class time that is spent on just experimentation. The entire security of their child’s future depends on the sure certainty of the academic system – and they do not want to take a risk. While the winds of change ARE blowing here, it is still restricted to a small pocket of parents who can afford to let children walk the path untrodden.

Lesson number 5 – I am therefore a passionate believer of building such learning spaces in the primary and middle school where one has the luxury and freedom of time. It is possible to make parents partners and support the idea of training for experiment and risk at this level. When we catch them young, a thinking culture becomes a part and parcel of their thought process, even when they have to face the structured rigors of the board exams in later years.

It is interesting to see that the 21st century skills that have now become the guideline for educators globally, lists creativity along with the other 3 Cs of Critical Thinking, Communication and Collaboration. It demonstrates that long standing research on the need to stimulate the right brain (where creativity lies) is an important responsibility of the educator. This is in departure to the existing over-emphasis on the left brain – that led to the glorification of the maths and sciences. With the right brain taking a bow, we now talk of STEAM instead of STEM – the Arts just got their rightful place after years and years of being looked down upon!

It is no wonder now that armed with the knowledge of the importance of the right brain, we are having discourses on experimentation, uncertainty, creativity and innovation. For too long have we lived in a left-brained dominated culture, looking at things logically with a disdain for ambiguity. But now we have realized that there is too much happening in the world that is uncertain and we need to embrace it and be comfortable. This ability to intuit lies in our right brain – no longer to be ignored.

There are no short cuts to this change – to move from comfortable certainty to exciting uncertainty. It calls for first recognizing the need to change. It calls for focused and determined effort. It calls for tolerance, patience and acceptance. It calls for all stakeholders holding hands and working together in harmony. It calls for prodding ahead not knowing WHEN we will get there, but yet having Faith that we WILL.

The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas. It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong than to be always right by having no ideas at all. – Edward de Bono

Dare to Fail

Probably the most poignant and proud moments for the entire nation were when Chandrayan2 almost succeeded in its mission. Though we lost contact with Vikram lander, the margin by which we failed was so extremely narrow, that it is as if we have already become the fourth nation to join the club of moon landers after USA, USSR and China. The world believes, we will, very soon.

The whole nation, nay, the whole world is in generous praise of our scientists at ISRO. We shared their ecstasy, we shared their agony. No sane person would call it a failure as ISRO lost contact perilously close to the goal. So near and yet far.

We almost succeeded and that by itself was a great leap in science. As Serge Haroche (Nobel Prize winner for Physics 2012) says – “science is something where you are going in the unknown – you have surprises, sometimes good surprises, sometimes bad surprises and failures.”

And that very aptly supports our cover story – our failures truly hold the seed for tomorrow. They make us understand how close to success we are! Let us be unafraid to pass on this courage to fail to our children. We need to tell them to Dare to Fail so that they can claim their right to win!

The author is Educational Consultant and Counsellor, Hyderabad. She can be reached at sheela.ramakrishnan@gmail.com.

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