On the Eve of Departure: Some Thoughts on Trust & Risk

Last February I received an email from my colleague Renée Dinnerstein asking me if I’d be interested in joining a study group going to Reggio Emilia in Italy to consider the implications of their educational approach on literacy across the grades. The email arrived on a bleak gray day that seemed to reflect the mood in schools as many teachers were preparing to shift from authentic instruction to test prep. And without really giving it a whole lot of thought, I hit the reply key, typed a quick yes, and sent it back to Renée, setting in motion a process that will lead me to board a plane for Italy tomorrow.

That day in February I think I experienced what Malcolm Gladwell would call a ‘blink’ moment. I didn’t weigh the pros and cons or deliberate long into the night. I just made a snap decision and acted, which, “in a world that,” according to Gladwell, “assumes the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into make it,” is generally frowned upon. In fact, a few weeks later I frowned on it myself as the doubts started creeping in. The cost, the timing, the focus on pre-school: What in the world had I been thinking! Fortunately, however, I made another ‘blink’ decision to trust whatever impulse led me to hit the send key that day and not succumb to what I suspect was some variation of fear: fear of not meeting my responsibilities, fear of not being in control, fear of being judged as rash in a world that puts a premium on reasoning and prudence.

I share this not only to let readers know that, depending on the circumstances and practicalities like wi-fi, I may be off the grid for a while, but because I think there’s implications in this story to what happens in classrooms. In the world we live in, it often feels like trust in teachers is at an all time low. And that lack of trust seems both toxic and contagious: It can cause us not to trust ourselves and not to trust our students. It can easily create a climate of fear in which everyone’s afraid of being judged, which in turn can make us reluctant to take risks and venture outside of our comfort zone. And it can lead us to second guess ourselves or abdicate our decision making right to others, including those who know nothing about our students or our classrooms.

How very, very different this seems from the preview I got of the Reggio approach the other week when I attended a meeting for the study group participants from the New York metro area. We watched a video of pre-school children engaged in a project they’d chosen themselves: to build an amusement park for birds in their school yard.  The teachers provided the class with opportunities to study birds’ behavior in a local park through careful observation. And when, having been delighted by seeing the birds splashing in the park’s stream, the students decided to focus their park’s attractions on fountains and waterwheels, the teachers gave them lots of time to observe those things in action so that they could formulate their own ideas about how hydraulically they worked. The teachers also gave them plenty of time to revise their ideas when things didn’t quite come out as they’d planned, as happened when the students had to rethink the shape of the waterwheel paddles after the ones they initially designed didn’t catch the water in a way that would ultimately make the waterwheel turn.

This process of observing and developing ideas to explain what you’d observed seemed similar to the process of close reading I described in my post last week, which made me excited about the literacy connections. But what I found myself thinking as I watched the video was how much trust this work required. The teachers trusted that the students could figure things out if given enough time and opportunities, and they trusted their ability to shepherd those students through a project whose scope and challenges they couldn’t always control or foresee. I think this is because they also trusted the process and the power of the students’ engagement and sense of ownership to help them through the tough spots. And they trusted that if they, too, carefully observed what the students were doing, they’d be able to figure out whatever next steps might be needed to empower and support them.

Of course, if they’re anything at all like me, this doesn’t mean that they never ask themselves that question, “What in the world was I thinking?” It might just mean, though, that they’ve come to value, both for themselves and their students, what can happen when we stretch ourselves outside our comfort zone, trusting that that’s where the magic happens. Or perhaps, it’s simply because they’re from Italy, where people say “in bocca al lupo”—”into the mouth of the wolf”—to wish each other luck, which seems to suggest, to me at least, that they may be more accustomed to leaping into the unknown and making those ‘blink’ decisions, trusting that behind the blink is a lifetime of knowledge and experience.

Whatever the reason, I’m eager to learn more. And trust me, I’ll share some of that here. And now, into the mouth of the wolf . . . .