The Great Demotivator

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By Ron Nash, author of In Praise of Foibles

As a young and wet-behind-the-ears teacher of teenagers (and not far removed from that condition myself), I often asked questions beginning with, “Who knows the answer to…?” or “Who can tell me…?” Had I asked, “Is anyone listening?” I might have gotten the same response: Silence. Crickets on a summer’s eve. Our cats when I say, “Who wants some medicine?”

I suspect every teacher who has ever worn a path in the front of a classroom has thrown those time-honored questions out to the multitudes in the manner of children on a parade float flinging candy into the crowds lining the street. The difference is that the crowds watching the parade seem to be enjoying it. My students didn’t always sport smiles or respond to my questions with enthusiasm.

The Fear of Being Wrong

It can be said, of course, that for the ninth graders in my history classes in the 1970s, it was not their first rodeo. They were not neophytes when it came to the classroom experience.

Some of them, it could be said, were grizzled veterans of the homework wars. My multiple-choice tests did not qualify as a novelty item for my freshmen. They had a great deal of experience with dozens and dozens of teachers over their careers, which meant they all shared something in common: They feared being wrong or making an unforced error in front of a classroom full of their friends (and some who were not so friendly).

Making public mistakes in my classroom no doubt ranked right up there with spilling four textbooks, a few notebooks, and some number 2 pencils into a crowded hallway on the way to lunch.

Must Cover Material!

Many teachers, myself included, want to hit the ground running with content. Must cover material! The tests are out there, lurking and lying in wait! So, I handed out my textbooks (which could have seen some service in the free-weight room attached to the gym), turned out the lights (literally and, I now know, figuratively), hit the switch on the overhead projector, and introduced them to a few European explorers looking for fame and fortune.

They took notes (or pretended to) and listened (ditto) to my cogent lecture. My job was, after all, to deliver the information and give them the straight skinny concerning U. S. history.

But the context of my classroom was, as it probably was in other classrooms in the building, one of fear—fear of being wrong. Had I held off on the content long enough to deal with the elephant in the room, we all would have benefitted.

  • I could have had them open up to each other in standing pairs as to why students don’t answer questions readily, but I didn’t.
  • I could have given them an example from my own past (again, I was not far removed from my high school and college days) of a mistake—or two or three—I made in classrooms, in assignments, on tests, or in general, but I didn’t.
  • I could have had them share, again in pairs (students will share with a partner what they may not share in public), their own mistakes and unforced errors, but, once again, I failed to do that.

If we want students to share in classrooms, we must make them fear-free

We can—and should—take the time to discuss with them, and have them discuss with each other, how mistakes can serve as opportunities. We can bring a respected coach into the classroom to share real live examples of how important mistakes and unforced errors are to the improvement process—and to winning games and matches.

The question is, will we do that? Will we help students come to grips with the impact of mistakes, failure, and fear on learning? Why? Because, as Debbie Silver (2012) reminds us:

“It’s important for learners to grab onto something they can take away from every effort so they can improve the next time they make an attempt” (p. 52).

The whole idea of learning is to make those attempts, take the risks, and go where we have not gone before, knowing we can fall down, get back up, and keep on going. Mistakes and failure will not bring learning to a halt if fear has been banished from the classroom.  

Order your copy of In Praise of Foibles today

Silver, D. (2012). Fall down 7 times, Get up 8: Teaching kids to succeed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.