Looking at the Elephant in the Room: Our Fear of Losing Control

The Elephant in the Room

I recently heard about a study from the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, who, along with Antonia Cameron, is the author of the great new book on coaching Agents of Change. The study looked at the use of open-ended questions, of the sort that can deepen, stretch and expand student thinking, in 500 classrooms across five countries (the U.S., England, France, Russia and India). All those countries supposedly place great value on critical thinking and discourse, whether it takes the form of accountable talk, Socratic seminars or your basic turn and talk. Yet, in those 500 classrooms, open-ended questions accounted for only 10% of the questions posed by teachers. And in 15% of classrooms no open-ended questions were asked at all. Additionally the study found that only 11% of the teachers in those classrooms asked follow-up questions to probe student thinking in ways that might develop and extend both the ideas and the discussion. And when students asked questions that were relevant to the day’s topic but weren’t on the lesson plan (which the study called ‘uptake’ questions), only 4% of teachers actually addressed them. They rest just let them hang there.

This seems to suggest that while we may talk the talk about talk, we don’t always walk the walk, and that leads me to the elephant in the room. While there may be many reasons why open-ended questions weren’t used more in those classrooms (including teachers being evaluated on standardize test scores), I suspect that the discrepancy between what we say and do is at least in part due to our fear of losing control of our rooms.

Panic ButtonFear, of course, is a powerful thing, and in this case the fear isn’t totally irrational. Teachers are, after all, just one person in charge of thirty or more children whose minds and bodies and moods can go off in a zillion different directions. And so in the belief that it’s better to acknowledge what scares us than pretend it doesn’t exist, I want to share the fact that I’ve never helped a teacher implement a writing unit without feeling a moment of panic in the middle, when things are at their messiest and I’m not quite sure how I’ll ever get us out of what I’ve gotten us into. Nor have I ever sat down with students to read—whether it’s for a whole class read aloud, a small group or individual conference—and not been aware that, by asking open-ended questions, I’m opening myself up to the possibility of encountering something I hadn’t expected and might not know how to deal with, which is precisely what happened with that class of third graders I wrote about earlier who were ready to jump on the idea that the Maasai were giving 14 cows to America in order to fight Al Qaeda.

Having some teaching moves up my sleeves, like the ones I’ve been sharing, definitely helps, as does giving myself permission to abandon my plans and exit the small group, read aloud or conference as gracefully and quickly as possible in order to give myself time to think about how to address whatever problem I’ve uncovered. And I hold on, as well, to the belief that if we don’t open up our lessons to encounter the unexpected, we limit the opportunities for students to show us what they’re capable of doing without us as well as where their thinking breaks down.

I also think it’s useful to acknowledge the worst that could happen if we loosen the reins in order to see that those worst-case scenarios aren’t really as bad as we imagined. Last week, for instance, I showed how we could turn a student’s “I don’t know” into an inquiry the-worst-case-scenario-little-book-for-survivalquestion rather than a dead end. And what’s really the worst that can happen if we don’t know something or have all the answers?

I think we fear that our authority or expertise might be called into question, but I believe that students actually gain much by seeing us not know everything. First and foremost, it demonstrates that learning is life long, and that we are learners, too. And admitting that we’re unsure of something often helps students take more risks in their thinking, as happened in a fourth grade classroom I worked in earlier this year. I bungled my way through the scientific name of a frog we were reading an article about, and the teachers observing me were convinced that my willingness to admit that I had no idea how to pronounce the frog’s name encouraged the students to share thoughts and ideas they weren’t completely certain about either.

And if you hit one of those ‘I don’t know what to do next’ moments, you can always follow the advice that the educational writer and speaker Alfie Kohn gives in his list of twelve core principles that he thinks will create the kind of schools our children deserve. Along with “Learning should be organized around problems, projects and students’ questions,” and “Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware of prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly,” he offers this:

“When we aren’t sure how to solve a problem relating to curriculum, pedagogy or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids.”

We can also stand up to the elephant by holding on to the pay-offs that come with letting go of control. Getting a clearer look at what’s going on in students’ head is certainly a big one. But I think there’s an even bigger pay-off, which was summed up by a teacher I worked with last year who, as we shared our take-aways at our final session said, “I no longer believe that there’s anything that my students can’t do.”

100th PostAnd last but not least, I want to share this: For quite some time after starting this blog, I couldn’t hit the key to publish a post without momentarily shuddering. What in the world was I thinking of, sending my thoughts out into the world? What if no one read them or didn’t like what I had to say? That fear hasn’t completely gone away, but as I send this, my 100th post, out into the world, it doesn’t have the same hold on me. I think that’s because I learned something that writer Erica Jong speaks about in her contribution to the wonderful anthology of essays The Writer on Her Work:

“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of the unknown, and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back, turn back, you’ll die if you venture too far.”

I think this means making peace with the elephant instead of ignoring or avoiding it and, more importantly, trading fear in for trust—trust in ourselves, trust in our students, trust in the meaning making process and the fact that the very worst that might happen is that we create some more space to learn.

Making Friends with the Elephant

31 thoughts on “Looking at the Elephant in the Room: Our Fear of Losing Control

  1. Vicki,
    Wow! You are the co-author of a FABULOUS book, What Readers Really Do, and you just shared that you are fearful when you post blogs! Amazing! But it is all about how one decides to channel that fear. Will I continue to grow and learn? And therefore share that process? Or will I hide away and not reveal my thinking and the possibility that there may be another view!

    Your closing caused goosebumps . . .” trading fear in for trust—trust in ourselves, trust in our students, trust in the meaning making process and the fact that the very worst that might happen is that we create some more space to learn.”

    Trust – my one little word.

    • Yes, it’s true, Fran. Putting yourself out there is always a little scary. It took me a while, for instance, before I was comfortable writing in front of students. And I dealt with that, in part, by acknowledging the fear by holding up a blank piece of paper and asking how many of us in the room sometimes felt scared by the sight of it. I’d raise my hand and then others would, too. And then we could move on. I think that means that we have choices not only about teaching moves but about moves within us as well. We can choose to let fear control us or choose to keep going despite it, trusting that we won’t fall apart.

  2. Thank you for trusting your readers and sharing all of this – your wisdom and your fears in this, your 100th post! This is such an interesting issue – why questions are not being explored or even allowed to redirect lessons and learning and take things in other directions. What I think you have also hit on here is about the power of community. When you shared something you weren’t sure about with that 4th Grade classroom, you were also building community – allowing everyone to be experts but also learners in the room. The other morning one of my students was reading a book and suddenly leaped up and ran across the room with his book to another student. I asked him a few minutes later about what had just happened. He explained that he had just discovered the answer to a student’s question she had posed during an interactive read aloud a few days before and he wanted her to know the answer. All of us learners. All of us sharing. An absolute sit back and smile moment for me. Possible though because of the community that we have in our classroom. Again, thank you for such a thought provoking post.

    • I live for those ‘sit back and smile moments,’ and you’re so right about the power of community. Reading all these comments, in fact, has made me think that perhaps it was no coincidence that this was my 100th posts. I first had to feel a part of a community in which we were all learners, which is the gift blogging give us. Makes me sit back and smile.

  3. Hi Vicki,
    I only started following your blog a few months ago but I have loved reading every single one of those ten posts! So often you find just the right way to say what I (and I know many others) think. Like Fran I particularly liked your last statement and of that the last part “that the very worst that might happen is that we create some more space to learn”. The ultimate goal! Thank you for the entry and congrats to the 100th post.

    • Many years ago, when I was pretty new at this, I had to give a demonstration lesson to a roomful of kids I’d never met before while being observed by thirty teachers and administrators, who I also didn’t know. I think it was the first time I’d had such a big audience and the only way I was able to get through it was by holding on to the idea that even if the lesson flopped, we’d all learn something in the process—and the fact that, if we’re trying to go deep, the chances are good that any single lesson won’t hit the nail on the head. And going deep and learning seem to be worth a little fear.

  4. “Trading fear for trust…” Trust really does create more space to learn, whether we’re working with children or adults. Thank you so much for articulating so clearly this fundamental truth about teaching and learning. Congratulations on your 100th post! I look forward to many more.

    • We have to hold on to these fundamental truths, otherwise they risk getting lost in a world that values product over process and uses fear to make us question ourselves. And it really, really helps to know there are others who are holding on to these truths just as firmly.

  5. Vicki,
    I so appreciate this post (and all of your others), especially today. After several messy talk periods around a poem that went in a million different directions, it was, well, a messy day. But I also think think that is so valuable. Those are the discussions that you just can’t plan and I think if we try and facilitate it right, the kids take themselves and us where they need to go. Even though it often doesn’t seem that way at the time. My goal this year is to set up good routines and make sure that the kids are talking much more than I am. I’m often surprised though at hard that can be.

    I appreciate your candor about your own fears because even after all these years of teaching I still sometimes feel like I have ended up in the deep end without my floaties. Congrats too on the 100th post! I’ve been reading your posts for awhile now and always look forward to finding them in my inbox. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and reflection!

  6. I’m with that teacher you worked with, Vicki. Our kids can do anything, and sometimes it’s our own fear as teachers that holds them back from taking those learning risks, from following those meandering paths of thinking that lead them somewhere new. Thank you for this powerful reminder about why we do what we do…and congratulations on your 100th.post!

    • That’s the ultimate reward, right, feeling like you’ve helped create space for your kids to constantly astound you! That seems so worth facing our fears for. And on a completely different note, so fun to discover we’re both Maira Kalman fans!

  7. VIcki,
    Everything about this post speaks to my deep fear of being found out. The fear of not knowing (we are suppose to know) of pushing the publish button (YOU TOO?!). As I read this, I thought how vulnerability and trust are connected. And that made me think of Brene Brown and her TED talk on vulnerability and shame. We are so fearful of being wrong, of being shamed, that we miss out on so much creativity and innovation. This year I’ve given myself permission to not know and ask my students. It is actually quite empowering (once you get use to the idea) recognizing process. We (my students and I) are researching our troubles together. It is so interesting when you give a student the chance to explain their thinking, you start to understand how they got there. I’ve found when I ask and listen closely, that totally off the wall response makes sense. The misconception becomes a little clearer and the re teach has a much higher likelihood of hitting the target.
    Thank you for making yourself vulnerable and acknowledging the elephant in the room.

    • Yes, of course, me, too! That’s the point, right, that we all feel that way, and it’s made worse by the fact that so much of education operates from a culture of judgment, shame and blame. But you can get more comfortable with the fear, as it sounds like you’re finding out, and the benefits are so huge. Reminds me of a facebook post a fellow blog reader Janet Fagel put up the other day about a first grade teacher who sat beside one of her students who had to take a standardized test on a computer. The question showed a picture of a cup of tea and then gave four possible choices about what could go in the tea, one of which was milk and another was mud. The child hit the key for mud, which, of course, was ‘wrong.’ But chuckling to himself, he whispered to his teacher, “That guy just put mud in his tea.”

  8. Dear Vicki,
    Love this post. It makes me think of Newkirk’s work about the Silences in our teaching, the idea that we all keep silent for fear to exposing ourselves and letting someone know that we don’t know everything. More and more a part of my job is to champion teachers and help them to find that trust over fear in themselves, while at the same time realizing their fears are not unfounded, but that we can choose to trust instead.

    • Thanks so much, Tomasen! It does seem to be, in Tom’s words, all about dropping the mask, which is often a scary thing to do. So it seemed important that I drop mine too. And, yes, I agree, trust is a choice we can make, even in challenge times. And in addition to helping teachers reconnect with what brought them to the classroom in the first place, much of work involves helping them rebuilding that trust in their own capacities.

  9. Hi!
    I’ve only just discovered your blog now and wanted to say thanks, for some really interesting reading. I work in education too (in South Africa) and your topics are really relevant to me! Critical thinking, questioning, teaching thinking, not just learning… there’s so much to talk about here.

    Thank you!

    • I’d noticed some hits from South Africa recently so I’m so glad you left a comment! Having just taken a look at your beautiful blog, it seems like our minds were both on fear the other week. And your look at Little Red Riding Hood reminded me of a time when my daughter and I were sitting on our stoop in Brooklyn waiting for friends who were very late in coming for dinner. She was maybe four and we’d been reading fairy tales and when I couldn’t answer her question about why the friends were late, she said, “Maybe they got lost in the woods.” Your Hitchcock quote was a great reminder that, no matter our age, there are always woods in which we can get lost—and which we can get through.

  10. Vicki,
    Congratulations on your 100th post! I am so very happy that you decided to begin that journey. I have reaped huge benefits from the ideas that you are exploring, and from the conversation you have fostered within these virtual “walls.”

    I know that feeling of dread. I still feel it when my finger hovers above the return key, too, which I sometimes think of as the Key of No Return. I still feel it, too, when the path through the jungle is far from straight, and the evening mists rise and the howlers howl, and we are still miles from home.

    • I love that phrase, the Key of No Return! I frequently feel that pang of dread when I hit it, but also how wonderful it is to see the evening mists rise up from the jungle and hear the howlers howl! Thanks.

  11. Happy 100th! May there be hundreds more! (I often learn as much from the comments here as from your post!!)

    I adore that final image! I need to make peace with the elephant!!

    • The comments keep me learning, too, Mary Lee. As do other things I find online, like your Choice Literacy piece this week. (I’m hoping you’ll share some of your ‘bracketology’ experiment in part 2, as I’ve shared that idea with teachers, who love it.

  12. Love your post. As scary as it has been, when I open myself up to being a learner along with my students, the sense of community has changed for the better as has our mutual respect for one another as lifelong learners who persevere through challenging work together! Thank you for “putting yourself out there” and congrats on your 100th post. You have a new follower in me! I just started a blog myself, only two posts so far, but you have given me more courage to proceed!!!

    • You’ve reminded me here of a key note speech I heard Mary Ehrenworth once give about risk. She shared that she does a form of extreme skiing (think helicopters, cliffs, no trails let alone ski patrol) and that frequently she had to throw up before she hit the slope. She then asked the audience what risks they took, knowing that everyone in the room asked students to take multiple risks every single period of every single day. The question then became how can we do that if we’re not willing to take risks ourselves? I think you’ve learned, as I have, that openness and risk-taking are contagious in the best possible way. So thanks for putting yourself out there, too, here and on your new blog!

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  16. I always enjoy your posts and hearing your thoughts! I like to think I ‘channel’ you and Dorothy whenever I plan my comprehension lessons. Thanks for putting in the time to post your thinking. It helps clarify and extend the ideas in your wonderful book.

    • Channel away, Bonnie! I often do that myself when I hit a tough patch in a lesson and I think about what Peter Johnston or the teachers in Reggio-Emilia might do in that situation. It helps keep my compass pointed in the right direction, and I’m delighted if I can help in that way, too!

  17. Reading this again a year later from today’s Choice Literacy email. It’s always a timely post, though. I live my life in fear, and it’s no fun. Fear of the unknown, fear of being wrong, and mostly, as Julieanne said in her comment, fear of being found out: I’m not a good teacher, I know nothing…… 🙂
    So I love your point about coming to terms with, or acknowledging, the elephant in the room. It’s exhausting to try to ignore that gigantic creature. You’ve helped me see I don’t have to keep doing that. I’m just going to ask him (or her) to get out of my way and go sit in the corner so I can carry on with my learning. Thanks, Vicki!

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