Drive out fear

One of the great opportunities I had in my earlier career as a software developer was to take W. Edwards Deming’s famous 4 day course. From Deming himself. For those who may not be aware of Deming he is the man created with helping to turn Japan from a producer of poor quality goods to a nation with the reputation for producing the highest quality of goods. This was the course that really helped me to understand what quality in production was all about. One of the memorable things about this course was discussion of his “14 Points for Management.” While these points were written for manufacturing I think some of them have some direct applicability for education. Some of them for the way we run schools and manage teachers (leadership and training and the responsibilities of management). And some for how we work with students.

The one I want to talk about now is number 8 - “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company” Though I would edit it as “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for learning.” Note that is is closely related to point number 3 – “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.” which I want to talk about some other time.

Students really know about fear in school. Fear of all sorts. Fear of bullies. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of failure. But we, adults in education, really push that fear of failure – grades and tests being the indicators of failure or success. Students sure do fear failure in computer science courses. After all  “everyone” tells them it is hard. Hard to do, hard to learn, hard to pass the APCS exam. Guidance counselors often tell some students to take easier courses so they can get better grades and get into the university of choice which doesn’t help matters. But we sure have given out the notion that students should be afraid of taking computer science.

Of course that is all part of the larger notion of fear (of poor grades or of not succeeding in a course) that we all too often use as a motivator in schools. We don’t often promote the fear that they might not learn things. Why is that?

Anyway, one of the keys to succeeds in most courses is to reduce fear. Students do better then the want to do something rather than when they are afraid of not doing something. Fear is more often a cause of failure, I believe, than a promoter of success. Fear wastes energy. Fear often causes students to work against each other rather than with each other. Top students fear that if they help someone else that may cause a loss of class rank for example. Or if the  teacher grades on a curve (something that never made sense to me) that helping other students will have a negative impact on their own test results and grades. And let’s not forget the fear that help will be mistaken for cheating! If we truly believe that the goal of education is learning rather than grades fear is not our partner.

The fear of failure also leads to a lack of experimentation. Students are often afraid to try things on their own, to learn beyond the classroom lecture, or to go beyond what is required. They are afraid that trying a failing will somehow hurt them more than not trying (not stretching beyond the requirements) and passing. They are afraid that if they aim too high they will lose even though they may still learn much from the trying. Thomas Edison used to say that at a minimum failure teaches us one more thing that doesn’t work. He didn’t fear that sort of failure at all but embraced it as a necessary step towards learning. Do we teach that to students? Shouldn’t we?

BTW I think that we push too much fear on teachers as well. Tenure aside, the threats to evaluate teachers on things outside their direct control scares a lot of teachers and rightly so. How is this a good thing?

I wish we could do without grades completely but of course society will never allow that. (Deming gave everyone in his MIT courses an A because the university required grades but he did not value them himself.) But we can do much to reduce stress and fear. We can reward and encourage experimentation. We can reassure students that trying has merit. We can make it clear to students that we as educators are not out to “get them” or to “trip them up on tests.” We can communicate that the value is the learning not the grade. And probably more. What do you recommend to drive out fear in the classroom? Or do you perhaps think students should run on fear? I’d love to read your thoughts.

Comments (1)

  1. Leigh Ann says:


    I highly recommend you read the book Chalkbored (yes spelled that way) by Jeremy Sneider.  He has some interesting ideas about the economics of schools (in terms of student and teacher gain vs. expenditure – not entirely about $$)

    I think that his ideas, while having lots of flaws, also have some interesting points.

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