Learning is just risky
Many years ago, I learned a training/facilitation protocol we simply call Comfort/Risk/Danger.
When working with a team, the protocol helps them, based loosely around whatever it is they are trying to accomplish and what kind of work it entails, to share what things put them as individuals in the comfort zone, the risk zone, or the danger zone.
For instance, some team members will be totally comfortable with public speaking; for others, it feels dangerous. For some, crunching numbers is comfortable; for others, it would be a risk. Some find conflict dangerous; some find it risky. And, we all know those who are a little too comfortable with it.
But, we need speakers; we need numbers people; we need people who create, manage, and support effective conflict. And, we cannot afford for those skill sets to reside with one person or in one department. It’s too easy for them to get marginalized, or to go away completely. Some element of each has to be part of a broader culture.
So, as the protocol helps demonstrate, building an effective team cannot just be about capitalizing on what everyone is already good at (i.e. what puts them in the comfort zone). Creating a team is about learning how to support a pervasive element of risk.
Humans learn better when there is some level of risk. In the risk zone, we are stretching, challenging ourselves, and actively asking questions and seeking solutions. When we are comfortable, on the other hand, we are surrounded by what we already know. We aren’t actively learning. When we are in danger, we aren’t learning either (social, emotional, and professional danger; not just physical). Fight or flight kicks in. We shut down, seek relief, and avoid (or project our danger onto others).
This week, we launched Zeumo in four beta schools with a little over 4000 students, and Comfort/Risk/Danger has been on my mind all week. I have watched and experienced this frame play out not only within the Zeumo team, but with our school partners and their students.
How do we launch a new product and company in a way that doesn’t put those of us at Zeumo in danger? How do we support each other’s risk and keep out of danger?
How do we offer a new educational technology in a way that doesn’t put teachers or administrators in danger? How do we support them as they risk trying something new?
And, for students, how do we…well, for this kind of thing, our students seem to be more capable of staying safely in risk. They are still natural learners.
This week and this frame have reminded me why I enjoy teenagers so much. It has also reinforced just how powerful an educator-who-is-still-a-learner can be. We met many this week. And, finally, it has proven to me that new education technologies can and should do more than facilitate business as usual. We must risk working with students in new ways and flexing our own traditional practices to meet their real and current needs. We must be willing to be risky.
If we want students to participate, we need to provide opportunities for them to participate.
If we want student voice, we need to create avenues to hear and capture it meaningfully.
If we want students to be leaders, we need to be willing to step back and let them lead.
Every day, adults use terms like voice, leadership, and engagement, and we design opportunities and programs based on them – but typically based on an indecipherable mash-up of what are unique and distinct concepts.
Several years back, seeking clarity, I sat down in an attempt to organize and articulate some of these terms more fully. I ended up writing the Continuum of Youth Involvement. I wanted to help adults get on the same page about what we really want, what we are really willing to give up, and what we can gain when it comes to the meaningful involvement of our students/youth.
After all, if we don’t know what we want from the start then we will continue to build programs and opportunities that don’t live up to our ill-defined aspirations (or perhaps surpass them in ways we are unprepared to see). If we don’t know what we are willing to give up as adults (power) then we will inevitably over-promise and under-deliver for the student in regard to their power. If we try to collaborate with youth and with other partners without clarifying our expectations, we will end up with little to show for our efforts.
For example, I have seen countless schools, community groups, and citywide youth collaboratives who all said they were interested in “student voice”. So, they work for days or weeks or even months together around this idea only to find out that one person, or an entire group, just meant that they wanted to survey youth, another wanted focus groups and a youth on the “youth voice” committee, and yet another wanted students to have an ongoing and unfettered say on important issues in the school and community.
After all that time and work, they realized they were never even close to being on the same page. Now what?
Days, weeks, and months of work go down the tubes. Adults are frustrated. Youth are confused. Energy and resources are wasted. The efforts of the group often get documented in a wholly un-actionable set of ideas, plans, and programs and most everyone returns to business as usual. Worse yet, adults are less likely to invest in youth voice again (even through a better process) and students are less likely to trust adults when they hear that term.
So, let’s commit to saying what we really want and are prepared to work for first. Let’s be honest about where we are and where we want to be along the Continuum of Youth Involvement.
If we don’t have many students participating, let’s start there and not talk about engagement yet. If we aren’t sure how to develop meaningful leadership opportunities, let’s start by listening to students and get their “voice” on what is important to them. We can co-create leadership from there. If engagement feels too abstract, let’s work with students to facilitate real leadership, which done well, will spur deeper engagement.
Before we can do what we say, we need to know what we are saying.