Why go big?

Go big or go home is a phrase we frequently use to encourage someone to take a risk. Why is going big so important? Because the “big” is where great things happen. There are many similar sayings out there, such as “no one ever achieved greatness by playing it safe” or “great things never come from comfort zones.” How many times did Steve Jobs go big? Recall his setbacks with Apple Lisa and the NeXT Computer. If he had not failed a few times and learned from his mistakes, we would not be texting on iPhones and listening to Apple Music on iPods today.   

Cleveland Browns versus Kansas City Chiefs

The playoff football game that recently occurred between the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs is a case in point of the Chiefs’ coach going big. Imagine that the game is once again at the fourth down, and there is one yard to go… If the Chiefs make the first down, the game will be over for the Browns; however, if they cannot get the yard, the Browns will get the ball back on downs and have the opportunity to score the game-winning touchdown. It appears as though Kansas City will try and get the Browns to go offsides, and if it doesn’t work, call a timeout. After all, their star quarterback has been knocked out of the game, and their backup is a thirty-five-year-old journeyman who has not played in years. Much to the shock of the Browns and the people watching, they snap the ball and make a daring pass to a player who gains several yards, sealing the fate of the Cleveland team. 

What happened? The coach of the Chiefs, Andy Reid, took a humongous chance. Reid is now hailed as a strategic genius because the Chiefs got the first down and won the game.

The Case of Grady Little

Nevertheless, I wonder how many people have gone big and did not succeed, forced to pay failure’s steep price with the loss of their job, with ridicule, or with a poor grade? If you do not believe me, ask Grady Little. He was the manager of the Boston Red Sox. In a baseball game between Boston and their dreaded rival, the Yankees, Little had a really tough decision to make: leave in his star pitcher Pedro Martinez who had pitched a great game thus far or bring in a reliever. Little went big and left Martinez in the game. The next batter got a double, and eventually, Boston lost the game. Little did not have his contract renewed. He went home. If Martinez had instead struck out the next two batters, Little would have been hailed as a master, and his contract would have been renewed (with a hefty raise)! 

Encouraging Risk-Taking

Sadly, the sporting world teaches us that if you go big in an environment where failure is not allowed, you might go home. In other fields such as technology and business, companies like Google reward people for being creative and taking a chance. In fact, it was encouraged with their “20% Project,” where employees were given twenty percent of their workday as free time to develop anything that interested or intrigued them. During that time, they developed products like Gmail, Google Maps, and AdSense. Despite employee productivity, many avenues pursued that led to nothing – ideas that once implemented did not work or ended in failure. 

The art and music field, another profession where taking risks is not only allowed but encouraged. Can you imagine if one of Jackson Pollock’s teachers had told him to stop playing with his brush and insisted he paints like everyone else? Consider this sobering thought as well: What if the Beatles had not evolved from a boy band into producing such groundbreaking albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonelyhearts Club Band (which was a huge risk, given its progressive themes)?

Risk-Taking in Education

Where do we place education on this spectrum? Is it a place where risk-taking and, thus, mistakes are encouraged or are students dissuaded from trying things for fear of failure? Unfortunately, education has a long history of being a place where failure is not allowed. We actually fail kids; it is part of the grading hierarchy. However, that does not mean our classrooms cannot be a place where students can go big and not have to worry about failure. You can create an environment where students feel comfortable going big or making the “big oops” because that is where our greatest lessons are learned.  

Establishing a Classroom Environment to Go Big

How do you establish this culture of going big in your classroom? After all, it is not something you simply demand. It is something you must deliberately create. Here are five ways you can create an environment where students feel encouraged to go big:

  • Give Students Choice: This choice might be in the shape the assessment of learning takes, it may be the product, it may be the method, it could even be the choice to take that risk and go big. Students need to feel as though they have a choice. Without choice, they will feel as though they have no control over whether they can take a risk or not. 
  • Do Not Grade Everything: Some teachers grade everything a child does in class whether it is homework, worksheets, assessments, or if the child brought the requested box of tissues to class at the beginning of the year. If students believe everything they do in your class is going to be graded and scrutinized by you, they will have the fear of failure hanging over them.
  • Be an Advocate, Not a Teacher: Many teachers feel it is their duty to solve their students’ problems. Unfortunately, if a student’s problems are solved by the teacher on a frequent basis, the student will not learn effective problem-solving. Instead, it is your duty to encourage students, and build their confidence to go big. If students do make mistakes,  turn the instance into a learning moment, not something punitive. You need to encourage and advocate for them to take chances.
  • Embrace Going Big: You must lead by example. Part of this process is being willing to go big yourself. For example, try an unfamiliar project that might produce amazing results, experiment with teaching strategies outside of your comfort zone, and admit to students when you make mistakes. If they see you are willing to go big and put yourself out there, they will be more likely to do the same. 
  • Purposeful Reflection Time for Students: They always say a mistake is not a mistake if you learn something from it. The question is, do your students have the space to figure out what they learned? This can be done with purposeful reflection where students are given the chance to analyze their work and determine what could have gone better as well as what that might have looked like. This may consist of giving students time to journal after a lesson where they took a big risk; it could be providing the opportunity to talk to other students (if it was collaborative work) to determine what they might have improved upon; it could be having a conversation with them about what they learned.

Encouraging Your Students to Go Big

As teachers, we must find ways to encourage students to go big. This may be difficult because their past schooling did not support this mindset. This can be especially true for gifted students who have the curse of spending the better part of their early education always being right. For these students, the answers have always come because things were relatively easy for them; however, some of these intelligent students do not know how to cope with it when they are finally faced with a challenge. If we are going to teach them resilience and how to develop grit, they must learn to take risks and not be afraid to do so. 

Stop playing it safe in the classroom and allow students to go big.

Todd Stanley is a National Board teacher and the author of many teacher-education books including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students: A Handbook for the 21st Century Classroom, Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning, and his latest, Enrichment Activities for Gifted Students: Extra-Curricular Academic Activities for Gifted Education. He served as a classroom teacher for 18 years where he worked with all grade levels in all subject areas in all types of service. He is currently the gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools where he lives with his wife and two daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @the_gifted_guy or visit his website at thegiftedguy.com where you can access blogs, resources, and view presentations he has given.

One Comment

  • Great article…the author’s suggestion: “be an advocate, not a teacher” really hit home for me! Great points – and a ‘must read’ for educators/parents/influencers who value encouragement over premature evaluation!