I’m sitting at my computer right now clenching my fist. I would love to say that the problem is external – that some outside person is getting in the way of my creative work. I’d love to say that I just don’t have enough time to get things done or that I’m too distracted. However, that’s not the case. The truth is that I can’t get it right.
I’m working on my dissertation right now. I have a solid idea of the research but I am trying to determine the best way to reorganize a sub-theme in the literature review. I plan out my outline but then scrap it. I write out a paragraph but it takes me three times as long as it should I second-guess myself after each sentence.
I am still a full month ahead of schedule. No one is breathing down my neck. So, the environment is pretty relaxed. This particular project combines two things I love — research and writing. It’s a topic I know well — motivation, self-efficacy, and project-based learning. I’ve read hundreds of journal articles and I have years of experience in this area. And yet, I’m frustrated. No, that’s really it. I’m afraid. I’m scared that my proposal will need huge revisions.
I’m afraid that it won’t work out in the end. I’m afraid that I will waste a few days and have nothing to show for it. I know, I know. Mistakes are a part of learning. Revision is necessary. I’ve mentioned before that the design thinking process is all about testing and revising a prototype. And yet, in the midst of this particular project, there’s this crushing fear that creeps in.
The Greatest Barrier to Creativity
Fear has a tendency to suffocate creativity. You grow older and quit dancing because you might look stupid. You quit singing because somewhere along the line, you started thinking your voice was bad and you’re too afraid to keep singing. You quit observing and wondering because you’re afraid of being unproductive.
I see this with my college students. Each year, I have each member of my new cohort create a sketchnote and students will get up and leave the room. They’ll put their hands over their work. They’ll rush through it and stuff it under their notebook. When I ask the class about it, the overwhelming answer is “I’m not an artist.”
The truth is, everyone is an artist, even if we aren’t particularly adept at sketching. But too often, we learn to hide this side of ourselves because of fear. Maybe it’s a moment of shame when someone teases you about your art. Or maybe you start comparing your work to others and decide that only a select few can be “real artists.” But whatever the cause, the underlying mechanism is fear. Fear that you’re not any good. Fear that you’re wasting your time. Fear of being found out.
Courage is a critical component of every part of the creative process — courage to pursue an idea, courage to make, courage to keep revising even when you’re scared it won’t get better, and ultimately courage to send your art off to the world. Launching your work is an act of vulnerability. Each time you share what you’ve created, you’re setting yourself up for judgment. This vulnerability increases even more when you’ve spent hours on a project and invested your emotional energy into it.
Five Ways Teachers Can Limit the Fear of Creative Failure
As teachers, our students experience the same types of fears. It is terrifying to share your work with an audience. And yet, when you share your work with the world, you develop critical soft skills that serve you forever.
So what can we, as teachers, do to reduce this fear?
1. Share your own fear as a maker.
I believe that teachers should create their own genius hours so that they can experience the fear that happens in the midst of making. I actually think there is a value in being creative (especially in a new realm) around students. I remember working with this amazing art teacher who would paint while her students painted. It was a strategic move. Don’t get me wrong. She was actively monitoring her students and she was quick to offer help. However, she wanted her students to see her make mistakes and get frustrated so that they would know that even veteran artists get frustrated.
I remember walking into her classroom one time when she said, “Art is scary. It’s not for the faint of heart. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought to myself, ‘I don’t know if I can pull this off.’ But each time I tried something new, I became a better artist.”
It was a powerful statement. And by being vulnerable as an artist, she created a classroom culture of risk-taking. There’s this paradox at work, where the more you can admit that you’re afraid, the more you are able to take creative risks.
2. Promote a growth mindset with students.
There’s a quote from Carol Dweck in Mindset that I think fits in well with creativity. “Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward. What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset. As soon as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of challenges. They become afraid of not being smart.”
I think the same thing happens with creativity. Kids start saying things like “I’m just not artistic” or “I’m just not good at programming.” If you haven’t read Mindset, I’d recommend it.
But as teachers, we can only model this growth mindset by allowing students to make mistakes. This is why I love a mastery-based approach to grading. When students know they can resubmit work and try again, they learn how to work through iterations and improve on their work.
3. Encourage risk-taking as a part of your classroom culture.
I mentioned in a previous post that being goofy actually leads to positive risk-taking and a greater climate of creativity. That’s one of the many things teachers can do to create a climate where kids are excited about taking risks. However, another way is to celebrate the “epic fails.”
I used to work with a teacher who had students celebrate their “epic fails” of the day. They would announce the following:
- My epic fail was . . .
- I learned . . .
- Next time I will . . .
Afterward, the whole class would cheer for that particular student. While this activity sounds a bit silly, it was a powerful way to model creative risk-taking and to let students know that mistakes are a part of the learning journey.
One day, I went to his classroom, and he said, “My epic fail was the way I taught vocabulary. I tried to use movement and it just confused everyone. I learned that I need to make things more explicit. Next time, I will use a TPR approach to movement and vocabulary instead.”
Here, students learn to evaluate what we wrong and make small improvements as they engage in iterative thinking.
It’s the idea that new ideas are often experiments and that a “failed experiment” isn’t a failure because you’ve learned something valuable along the way.
4. Switch to standards-based grading.
Students become risk-averse when they are worried about grades. The traditional system of averaging grades (and placing completion above mastery) ultimately means students are less likely to take creative risks. However, when they know that they can revise their work and ultimately create something that is worth putting in a portfolio (feel free to download the free portfolio), they see mistakes and revision as a natural part of the creative process. Moreover, students are likely to take creative risks and face their fears if they know that they will have the opportunity to resubmit for mastery. While this might seem like “lowering the standards,” this is actually raising the standards because you’re saying, “I want you to keep trying until you have it right.”
When this happens, students internalize the idea that failing is a temporary state. Notice that there’s a difference between fail-ure and fail-ing. Failure is permanent while failing is a part of the learning process. We don’t want students to embrace failure. If you embrace failure, you’re the Cleveland Browns. But you do want to see students recognize how failing is a part of the learning process. When we have a mastery-based, standards-based approach to grading, we send the message that students should “fail forward” and improve until they have mastered the standards.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that every single project will be successful. As mentioned earlier, sometimes a project ends up as a failed experiment. In these moments, it helps to remind students of the options they have in dealing with “failed projects.”
5. Keep the creative work meaningful to students.
Part of why I am not giving up right now is that I love what I’m doing. I am making something that matters to me. I’m geeking out on this research. So, both the product and the process are something I love (even when I’m frustrated). If that’s not present in a student project, it’s pretty hard to keep students intrinsically motivated.
This is why it’s critical that student projects remain authentic. One of my favorite student-centered projects is Genius Hour.
I also love design thinking projects because students own every part of the process. The more they can own, the more buy-in they have. The more buy-in they have, the more likely they are to face their fears and persevere.
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