Every day, in classrooms across Australia, we encourage students to embrace risk.
“It’s OK to make a mistake as long as you learn from it,” we say.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try again.”
We encourage students to challenge themselves when completing tasks and to take risks when sharing their thinking. And by the way, aren’t the huge smiles on students’ faces when they achieve something new one of the best parts of being a teacher?
But what about us teachers?
For a profession that teaches others that risk-taking and opening ourselves up to failure is not just OK but a necessary part of learning, we teachers can be awfully hard on ourselves.
As early career teachers we are sponges, soaking up new information and experiences. But sometimes this dramatic learning curve can diminish, especially if we get to a point where we feel like we should know it already. I often hear: “I’ve been teaching for years and I’m a good teacher: but why do I still find maths so difficult?”
Primary maths: it’s not difficult, it’s just different
If I had a dollar for every primary teacher I’ve met who feels fearful about trying new things in maths, I’d be relaxing on a beach right now, drinking something colourful with a small paper umbrella in it.
The irony is that although many teachers feel fearful about new approaches to maths, the reality is, of all the subjects we teach in primary school, maths is the one which benefits the most from experimentation and risk-taking.
Here’s why: maths isn’t hard, it just needs to be taught and learned differently. Even the most brilliant teacher can’t teach maths using the same techniques they use for other subjects. Why? Because maths is the only subject where the content is developmentally sequenced. This is why maths, more than any other subject, requires teachers to be open to risk-taking and personal and professional growth.
Getting started: three not-so-risky risks you can take in your maths class
They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. Here are some not-too-scary changes you could try in your maths class which will start to take your teaching – and your students’ learning – to the next level:
– Park the worksheets for a week and try asking open-ended questions with students recording on their whiteboards instead.
– Ditch the small group work with different tasks, and try teaching a whole-class differentiated lesson using one task instead.
– Commit to a week of hands-on maths.
The rewards of risk-taking
The thing is, the rewards of risk-taking can be wonderful. I have the privilege of working with hundreds of teachers and school leaders every year, and just as teachers thrive on seeing those ‘aha’ moments in their students, I love helping teachers and school leaders have their own realisations of what is possible and the amazing things they can achieve if they have the right tools and put their fear to one side.
So what’s stopping us? The fear of failure
The fear of failure can be damaging as it can stop us from challenging ourselves, from stepping out of our comfort zones. It can keep us confined to doing things the way they have always been done, even if the evidence suggests a different approach.
Every teacher can improve: Dylan Wiliam
Someone else who is passionate about continuous improvement is the maths education guru, Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London. (Here I am with him at the Leadership for Teacher Learning Institute last year: check out that wonderful tie!)
If you need more convincing about the value of risk-taking, take a minute to watch this fantastic two-minute video from Dylan Wiliam, Every Teacher Can Improve.
Dylan wants us to know that for educators, risk-taking and even failure is normal. In fact it’s integral. “Every teacher has difficulties; every teacher fails on a daily basis,” Wiliam says. “If you’re not failing on a daily basis you’re just not paying attention.”
Quality PL and mentoring: two essential parts of the puzzle
This idea of a culture of continuous improvement really resonates with me. It aligns perfectly with the Whole School Approach Model that I co-wrote with Tim Waugh: a framework for schools to use in planning consistent, high-quality teaching and learning of mathematics.
We believe that two important pieces of the puzzle include: a school culture where professional learning is dialogue-based, valued and supported; and where maths leaders lead maths by mentoring. As Wiliam says, teachers have one of the hardest jobs in the world, “so hard that you need more than one lifetime to get good at it”. We also have one of the best jobs in the world – so let’s give this profession the support it deserves.
Fear is your friend: not the enemy
Wiliam also draws parallels between teachers and the famous composer Andre Previn, who quit when he was arguably at the top of his game, having achieved four Oscars for his work in film and 10 Grammy Awards.
Why did he quit? Because he wasn’t scared anymore.
So fear – even fear of failure – is a good thing; something that can push us forward. I have been working in maths education and providing professional learning for more than 25 years, and even though I speak in front of people all the time (and let me tell you, I LOVE to talk!) I can still get a little scared when I step out on stage to give a keynote address, or in a room full of teachers for professional learning, or even in classrooms when I’m teaching kids! There’s the butterflies in the belly, and the desire to do an excellent job and really make a difference in the time I have.
But it’s worth it. I love mathematics and I love being an educator. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. And neither would you, I bet.
PS. If you want to find out more about the power and potential of the Whole-School Approach Model and how it can benefit your school, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your PL options.
PPS. If you liked the Dylan Wiliam video, you can check out more of his inspiring talks that I have curated for you in a Playlist titled ‘Dylan Wiliam’ on my YouTube channel here. You can find out more about Dylan here and I highly recommend you check out his book Leadership for teacher learning: Creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed (Dylan Wiliam, 2016).
A leading expert in Australian primary mathematics education, Anita Chin is the Founder and Learning Strategist K-8 at Anita Chin Mathematics Consultancy. She works with primary schools across Australia to transform teachers into confident, inspired mathematics educators, by delivering a deep, whole-school understanding of the mathematics curriculum, along with innovative teaching techniques that inspire and delight.