Of all our pleasures in learning, my personal favorite is the achievable challenge. The greatest joy in teaching is seeing students grow in ability and confidence. Our eight-week terms here at Ft. Campbell often remind me of time-lapse videos that show dramatic changes happening fast. Just today I was marveling at the growth I’ve seen in many of the students in my second-semester anatomy & physiology class. These students have progressed from trying to distinguish proximal from distal only a few weeks ago to their current understanding of complex interactions between multiple body systems. They’re able to analyze and predict the effects of variations in hormones, respiratory status, and circulation. They are indeed meeting achievable challenges, and their pleasure is evident.
As instructors, we sometimes focus on the “achievable” part of the phrase, and rightly so. Figuring out how to make knowledge more accessible keeps us up at night and wakes us up in the morning. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we need to remember that the second part of the phrase is “challenge.” The element of risk is what makes an achievable challenge a pleasure to meet.
We often overlook the risks that our students are taking. They risk the cost of tuition. They risk being overwhelmed by our expectations and singed by our criticisms. They risk being annoyed by or ostracized by classmates. They risk being bored for hours by our teaching techniques. They risk wasting their time if we fail to deliver what our syllabi promise them. Above all, they risk failure. Even the most confident student breathes an audible sigh of relief when an exam is returned with a good mark.
Maybe we forget how it feels to risk because we faculty members don’t have to risk very much very often. It’s so easy to settle into our comfort zones, taking the tried-and-true path rather than exploring new opportunities for ourselves and our students. The challenge of teaching well involves risk: the risk of wasted time and energy, the risk of our self-image as experts, the risk of losing our colleagues’ approval, the risk that our students will not like or learn from our techniques. But there can be no real challenge, and certainly no pleasure in achieving a challenge, without the element of risk.
“Make it just hard enough. Interestingly, the more challenging your goal, the more likely you are to progress toward it.”
So whether we’re hoping to make our teaching more effective, working on the three-book challenge as part of our Quality Enhancement Plan, or chipping away at a personal fitness goal, we should be mindful of offering ourselves the pleasure of meeting an achievable challenge.
Film-maker and adventurer James Cameron ended a February, 2010, TED talk with these words:
“NASA has this phrase that they like: “Failure is not an option.” But failure has to be an option in art and in exploration, because it’s a leap of faith. And no important endeavor that required innovation was done without risk. You have to be willing to take those risks. So, that’s the thought I would leave you with, is that in whatever you’re doing, failure is an option, but fear is not. Thank you.”
As we set goals for our students—and especially for ourselves—let’s embrace risk.