Making Our Students “Intellectually Uncomfortable”

I have been using the word “uncomfortable” in education for quite some time now.  When I was the Coordinator of the McNair Mini School, I used to tell prospective students and their parents that our goal was to make them all uncomfortable.  You should have seen their faces before I explained myself.  During the past couple of weeks, I was at it again telling my students it was my goal to make them intellectually uncomfortable in the Physics Unit of the Science 10 course.  They had a similar look of surprise.  The fact of the matter is if students are not challenged and made to feel uncomfortable, their potential for growth will be limited.  I saw the following quote on a sign outside a church while I was driving: “Smooth seas do not make a skilled sailor” and it couldn’t be more accurate.  My good friend Bill Cartwright, a retired school counselor, always said that there is a silver lining to any uncomfortable situation (even a bad situation) in that those involved always had the capacity to come out a little more experienced and stronger.  So having our students uncomfortable and/or take risks, albeit in calculated amounts with appropriate support structures in place, is a very valuable thing.  There is so much value in the process of “falling down” and picking oneself back up. 

Another way to look at the idea is to address the fear of failure.  Chris Wejr (@mrwejr) posted the following blog on Twitter: “Cultivating a Culture of Failure” by Shelley Wright.  I couldn’t agree more that a culture that promotes failure, or maybe more positively put as risk-taking, is absolutely necessary.  Unfortunately, it is easier said than done.  We are currently in a culture of marks and achievement, or rewards as Dan Pink writes about in his book, Drive.  Sir Ken Robinson said, in 2006, that the fear of failure is killing creativity and it has been so for quite some time.  Change takes time and lots of conversations but anything worthy does.  However, it is important to note that there are already a number of ways educators are promoting students to take risks.  For example, Shelley Wright will be engaging in conversations with her students, and colleagues everywhere, with a huge variety of their own ways, are promoting students to be “intellectually uncomfortable”.  Let’s keep it going.

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One response to “Making Our Students “Intellectually Uncomfortable”

  1. Great post! I really like your ‘uncomfortable’ approach with your students. I think I had a similar experience this year when I told my students (in the first week of school) that I expected them all to fail! You should’ve seen their faces! The idea is that deep learning and growth can come when you make mistakes (i.e. fail) is something that really resonated with my students and gave them the freedom to experiment and play with their learning. However, I found that this freedom can only truly be achieved when you take the mark away from the assignment. Grades kill creativity and stifle risk-taking because as soon as there is a grade to be had, that’s what students will work towards. I hope you will start off this next semester by making your students uncomfortable again!

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