A Field Guide to Taking Risk in the Classroom

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Photo: A.McKenzie

In Brookfield’s book, The Skillful Teacher (2015) the 9th maxim of the 16 he lists for skillful teaching is “Don’t’ be afraid to take risks (p 271).

For me, the word risk can invoke feelings of fear – fear of failing, fear of loss, fear of the unknown, fear of making a fool of myself, fear of adversely affecting of my bank account or health – overall, rather stressful stuff. But I also know that risk is the very thing that makes my life exciting: every time I head out for an adventure into the backcountry – which I love to do – I take risks because, according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, an adventure “is an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks” (n.d., Adventure definition #1). So how can taking risks cause me both anxiety and excitement? Why are taking risks a part of skilful teaching?

To take a risk is to knowingly put yourself in a situation that will challenge your abilities. If your abilities meet or surpass the challenge, you will succeed and you may even say that it was fun. Csikszentmihalyi as cited in The Pursuit of Happiness (n.d.) states “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  (The Pursuit of Happiness, n.d., para1).

Risks will push us to success or failure; they define what level our abilities are at and, when we reflect on the situation, what we need to do to be able to succeed next time. Taking risks is, as Thorton and Harris (2015), state “ . . . how we learn, create, even adapt (para 1). They improve critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and give students more self-confidence (Thorton & Harris, 2015).

If the risk is greater than your abilities you will fail. Failing makes us feel awful. But it doesn’t have to stop there. “People shy away from risks because they fear failure — but what’s so bad about failing? Some of the greatest moments of understanding happen after we’ve “failed”” (para 6, Thorton & Harris, 2015).

“Risk is endemic to skillful teaching. Good teachers take risks in the full knowledge that these will not always work” (Brookfield, 2015, p 271). Just like in life, taking risks in the classroom means we will encounter success and we will encounter failure. We will have times when we will be in flow and times when we feel we are falling into the abyss: the times when we actually learn the most.

Taking risks will help everyone to learn, so as teachers we need to create an environment where we can all feel that these risks will make for a wonderful adventure and not a mission of self-destruction. As teachers we need to create a place where “ . . . kids take chances because risk is honored, because risks are taken from a comfortable platform, and because there’s always a soft spot to land” (para 5, Thorton & Harris, 2015).

Here are some tips I learned about how I (as a teacher and as a student) can ensure that my adventures in education will be a safe, exciting and filled with lots of great learning.

Model how to take risks

Develop the skills to be able to succeed at taking risks.

Critical thinking skills – “When people think critically they try to identify the assumptions that frame their thinking and actions and to check out how far these assumptions are accurate and valid. They do this by looking at their ideas and decisions from different perspectives. On the basis of this they then take what they hope are informed actions” (Brookfield, 2015, p 155).

Applications for me as an instructor:

  • Share scenarios from maternity where I did and didn’t apply critical thinking.
  • Share critical thinking steps with students.
  • When I encounter failure in the classroom, review my errors in critical thinking with students and what I could have done differently.
  • Review my assumptions about my abilities before I take a risk in the classroom like trying out a new instructional strategy.

Tips for me as a student:

  • Share with peers critical thinking steps for case studies.

Be confident and organized (Svinicki, 1989-90) – “When the students are convinced that the instructor is “in control” and knows where the class is going, they will feel more comfortable about taking risks”( para 7).

Applications for me as an instructor:

  • Know my material Make a plan A, plan B . . .

Tips for me as a student:

Ensure Soft Landings

Provide risk-taking opportunities (Svinicki, 1989-90) – “Allowing students to struggle and take wrong turns helps them learn something from the process” (para 11).

Applications for me as an instructor:

  • Ensure that I have created a positive learning environment where students will feel safe to take risks – show respect for them, make them feel valued for who they are and what they know. Value failure as a positive learning experience and opportunity for growth. Ensure privacy and confidentiality with students when discussing failures. Practice and foster a growth mindset.
  • Ensure that I have created a safe learning environment where students will feel safe with me taking risks like trying out a new teaching strategy.

Tips for me as a student:

  • Ask for formative feedback while learning is taking place.

Learn from each other

Applications for me as an instructor:

  • Before I try out something brand new in the classroom, talk to my colleagues and find out if they have tried it before. Some of the teaching strategies I used in my online course were exercises I did when I took the PIDP 3250 course online. By trying them out and watching how my instructor managed the class I was able to learn a lot about what worked and why.

Tips for me as a student:

  • Share presentations and problem solve in small groups first before having to go to a large group to share. Reid (2010) suggests having students break into small groups for Think-Pair-Share as a way to increase student interaction and risk taking behaviours.

Start with baby steps

“Not all students have the same level of risk tolerance. We can scaffold risk-taking behavior, beginning with risks most students can participate in (brainstorming questions) before we move to more complex tasks (proposing solutions)” (Reid, 2010, para 5).

Applications for me as an instructor:

  • Before I decide to radically change a class, start with a few changes first so that I can gain confidence with how the new changes will impact learning and classroom dynamics.
  • Take time to develop my skills and confidence working with new technologies by integrating them slowly into the classroom.
  • Ensure that the students have the skills to be able to manage the challenge of the learning.
  • Keep the stakes low as students are learning and then increase the stakes as mastery is gained.

Tips for me as a student:

  • Try taking risks when the stakes are lower so that I can develop the skill first before taking on risks with higher stakes. For example, before taking on a simulation that requires multiple complex skills to be successfully completed, start with one complex skill and gain proficiency before moving on.

Get in the flow!

Increased skill means increased opportunity to handle more challenges, which will create more opportunities to get into flow, which will increase learning!

Applications for me as an instructor:

  • Finding my own flow will lead to increased personal satisfaction with teaching which will lead to more passion and more enthusiasm which means more learning for students!
  • Provide the right amount of challenge for students and frequent formative feedback so that they can they can get into flow.
  • Provide a positive learning environment where students will feel safe and will be able to focus.

Tips for me as a student:

  • Take measures to create an environment where I can get into flow.

 

Taking risks are part of the adventure of learning. Critically thinking, planning, working together, taking baby steps and ensuring that there is a safe place to land will safeguard that no one gets hurt in the process.

Bring on the next adventure in learning!

References

Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Merriam- Webster Online Dictionary. (n.d.) Adventure definition #1. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/adventure

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (n.d) The Pursuit of Happiness. Retrieved from:http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi/

Reid, S. (2010) Teaching Risk-Taking in the College Classroom Faculty Focus Higher Ed Teaching Strategies from Magma Publications. Retrieved from:

https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/teaching-risk-taking-in-the-college-classroom/

Svinicki, M. (1989-90) If Learning Involves Risk-taking, Teaching Involves Trust-building Essays on Teaching Excellence Toward the Best in the Academy Volume 1, Number 2. A publication of The Professional & Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (www.podnetwork.org). Retrieved from: http://podnetwork.org/content/uploads/V1-N2.pdf

 

Thorton, M. & Harris, C. (2015) Creating Space for Risk Schools that work edutopia George Lucus Educational Foundation. Retrieved from:

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/creating-space-for-risk-michael-thornton-cheryl-harris

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