Fear and Educational Innovation

There is an important connection between fear and educational innovation. Fear can be healthy. It can serve as a useful tool for challenging us to pause and count the costs. It can also be a haunting force, preventing us from venturing into new possibilities with great promise in education. Whether it is fear of personal loss,  financial loss, losing control, personal failure, failure or disappointing others, losing face or harming one’s reputation (individually or organizationally), losing power, or simple fear of the unknown; we can’t ignore the role of feature in our actions, policies, pursuits and resistance to innovation in education.

Someone recently posed a simple question to me. What would you do with your life if you were not afraid? Fill in the blank. “If I were not afraid, I would _____________. We can certainly use this exercise to explore personal decisions in our lives, but how might this impact the way that we approach education?  How much of what we do in education is simply a result of being frozen by our fears, unwilling to take even small and calculated risks in pursuit of noble causes in our classrooms, schools, or the greater educational ecosystem?

Schools can be havens for fear. We can be tempted to use it as the main tool for classroom management. Students work out of fears of getting a failing grade. Students hold back on being themselves out of fear of judgment from peers or even bullying. Then there is just the general fear of failure along with fears of being unwelcome, rejected, our labeled an outsider.

As I’ve written before, teaching students to face fears, to persist through failure, is an important part of life and learning. While we might explicitly teach such lessons to students, if our organization is designed to avoid fear or to be inhibited by it, what are we really teaching students about fear and failure? Our culture teaches as much or more than our planned lessons.

As such, following is a series of quotes with a few thoughts for how we might want to approach fear in our approach to educational innovation.

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” – Henry Ford

Innovation always involves some measure of risk. I’m not suggesting that we blindly jump off educational innovation cliffs in hopes for the best. However, if we take the time to research the educational equivalent of building a hand glider, do the hard work of preparing, and then find ourselves standing on that cliff of educational innovation, it is time to take a leap.

I met a teacher recently who built an airplane with his students…an actual airplane! How many of us would have thought that impossible, never trying, never considering the possibility? Yet, can you imagine the sense of agency and possibility that was planted in these young people as a result of that effort?

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” – Rosa Parks

I continue to write about the importance of having a compelling “why.” It is not just about having a why, a reason. It is about having one that is compelling. When we find something that is deeply important to us, it has immense power to move us. That is why many great innovations in education come from parents and others who are invested in the problem enough to act. We don’t get educational innovation from leaders and educators who are content and checked out. We get them from people who see a problem and make up their mind to do something about it, even if it is frightening.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” – Helen Keller

In the end, just sitting there and doing nothing is an even more frightening prospect in this current educational landscape. Some may be deluding themselves into thinking that all of what we are experiencing is some massive fad that will soon pass. Good luck with that one. The fact is that we are in a time of unprecedented change. Whether you want to preserve past practices or pursue new ones, that is going to require facing your features and action.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” – Fred Rogers

We can get down about disheartening statistics of inequality and student performance. We can be overwhelmed by the grand educational problems of our day. Yet, there are people who are doing something about these things. Find out about them. Get inspired by them. Join the action. If nothing else, at least be a champion for what they are doing until it eventually moves you to do something about it.

“Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark, professionals built the Titanic.” – Unknown

I respect professionals and experts and what they bring to the conversations about education reform. Yet, we can always delay acting because we don’t think that we are expert enough, that we lack some sort of knowledge, skill or ability. If so, get started today by growing and learning. Knowledge and skill is not something with which you are born. You develop it. Besides, some of the great innovations in education of our day are coming from people who were/far from educational experts when they got started.

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

We all know this, but we all seem to benefit from reminders, don’t we. Over time, it is easy to let fear mulffle our missions, delay our action, feed our inhibitions, and prompt us to come up with a satisfying justification to refrain from moving forward. It takes courage to pursue educational innovations that matter.

“I failed my way to success.” – Thomas Edison

Of course, we have the face the reality that we might fail. We will most certainly fail along the way to success. If we are not ready for this reality, then we can use a failure as an excuse to give up. Or, sometimes it is a complete failure and it is time to move on with something new, but that takes some careful reflection so that we know we are not just letting fear dictate our actions.

Failure is not an indictment on your worth and character. Even if the entire enterprise flops, you have lessons learned and you can achieve success in the future. I live in the Midwestern United States were we can be quick to judge and label “failures”, even if we do it subtly. I once spoke with a leader of a large school who was very skeptical about hiring a highly successful educational innovator who failed at his last effort. He was convinced that this was evidence of some permanent and condemning character flaw. I don’t buy it. Scan some of the greatest minds, leaders, innovators and inspirations throughout history and they failed at things. Some failed far more than they succeeded.

There is a book called Failure is the Backdoor to Success. I agree with much in the book, but my one challenge is that failure is not the backdoor to success. It is the front door, side door, and window to success as well. At some point and in some way we are going to experience failure. That can be frightening. The important part is to not wast waste the failure. Learn from it. Use it.

Fear is a helpful tool in driving us to reflection, preparation, and even caution. Yet, it has exceeded its value when it holds us back from the pursuit of needed innovations and opportunities in education. As I see it, we are wise to be thankful for the gift of fear but also to keep it in check. Let fear be the backup singer in your band, and let mission take center stage.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).