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!


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:


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:



Critical Thinking Revisited

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Photo A. McKenzie

When I last posted about critical thinking I thought I knew what critical thinking was all about: critical thinking = knowing how to think. Now as I think about what I thought I knew about thinking I realize that perhaps I hadn’t thought about it deeply enough.

Definitions of critical thinking, I have discovered, are not clearly defined and are often quite long. This one, for example: “the ability to analyze and evaluate information” (para 1, Duron, Limbach & Waugh, 2006) is brief but doesn’t encompass the full range of the complexity of critical thinking or address how critical thinking is related to problem solving.

Critical thinking requires “. . . reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving” (Willingham, 2007, page 11). It requires us to have effective metacognitive skills to be able to be able to look honestly at one’s own biases, judgements and assumptions, to be open to new ideas and new perspectives and to be flexible to list a few (Characteristics of Strong Critical Thinkers, 2013). 

It also requires us to have a strong understanding and knowledge base in the area that we are required to critically think. For example, when my laptop starts misbehaving the extent of my critical thinking skills to solve the problem is to turn it off and reboot it. If the problem continues beyond that I am at a loss. When I encounter a problem with a clinical situation in the hospital (provided it is in maternity or another area I have knowledge in) I am able to pull on 25 years of experience and knowledge to help me determine the problem, apply a strategy to solve the problem, reflect on its effectiveness and autocorrect if the problem persists or is not fully resolved. The key here though is that I need to continually monitor that the judgements and assumptions I am making are accurate.

The Pearson’s RED Critical Thinking Model distils critical thinking to 3 key areas. While I like the simplicity of the model, I think it is important to be able to fully appreciate what is involved with each of the three steps.

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image source

So how can I help students to engage in critical thinking? More specifically, how can I help RNs new to perinatal nursing engage in critical thinking?

First, I can teach strategies that that will help students be able to apply critical thinking skills. These would include:

  • having them look at their assumptions and beliefs about the issue;
  • having them look at how they are understanding the issue – are they interpreting the issue based on what they think they know about it or are they trying to understand all of the nuances of the issue;
  • looking at the issue through multiple perspectives;
  • applying their knowledge of what they know about the issue;
  • coming up with solutions and assess them for their potential effectiveness;
  • applying metacognitive strategies throughout the process.

Furthermore, it is important for students “. . . to avoid biases that most of us are prey to when we think, such as settling on the first conclusion that seems reasonable, only seeking evidence that confirms one’s beliefs, ignoring countervailing evidence, overconfidence, and others”(Willingham. D.T. 2007 page 13).

To make this happen, I can use case studies but instead of going through them as a group with me leading the discussion I can have students read through a case study presented on a power point and then have the students break off into pairs to critically think through it on their own. Using this approach increases the success of being able to develop the student’s critical thinking skills (Wardlow, L., n.d)

Here is a link to a wonderful infographic  made by one of my colleagues about how the ‘Chunk and Chew’ instructional strategy can be used for this purpose.

Willingham (2007) stated: “. . . teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time” (page 15).

My job as an instructor is to help RNs new to perinatal nursing have a greater chance of deploying the right type of thinking at the right time by having them understand the principles of critical thinking, ensuring they have a knowledge base in perinatal nursing, presenting case studies using the chunk and chew instructional strategy and having them apply critical thinking to the case studies that the group can then assess for effectiveness.



Characteristics of Strong Critical Thinkers (2013) Insight Assessment Measuring Thinking Worldwide Retrieved from: http://www.insightassessment.com/Resources/Characteristics-of-Strong-Critical-Thinkers

 Duron, R., Limbach, B., & Waugh, W., (2006) Critical Thinking Framework For Any Discipline International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Volume 17, Number 2, 160-166. Retrieved from: http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE55.pdf

Jones, R., (2013) The Instructor’s Challenge: Moving Students beyond Opinions to Critical Thinking Faculty Focus Higher Ed Teaching Strategies from Magna Publications. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/the-instructors-challenge-moving-students-beyond-opinions-to-critical-thinking/

Pearson’s RED Critical Thinking Model (2016) Think Watson Pearson Education, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.thinkwatson.com/the-red-model/red-critical-thinking-model Retrieved from: http://www.thinkwatson.com/the-red-model/red-critical-thinking-model

Wardlow, L., (n.d) Insights From Research on How Best to Teach Critical Thinking Skills Teaching in a Digital Age Always Learning Pearson Research and Innovation Network Retrieved from: http://researchnetwork.pearson.com/wp-content/uploads/DigitalAge-CriticalThinkScience-v2.pdf

Willingham. D.T. (2007) Critical Thinking Why Is It So Hard to Teach? American Educator American Federation of Teachers. Retrieved from:  http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Crit_Thinking.pdf

Let’s Get Critical Thinking!



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I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” Socrates

For a good overview of critical thinking, check out the great little video below.


Critical thinking = knowing how to think.

Since the 1950’s, educators have used Bloom’s Taxonomy to develop learning goals that would promote critical thinking. I have noticed that learning goals for the curriculums and train the trainer workshops that I have taken are peppered with action words like implement, devise, apply, analyze and develop. Interestingly, aside from this course, I cannot ever recall having to critically think for much except for the occasional paper. Quite honestly, I feel like all I’ve been trained to do is simply reword course information.

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Image retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/

Recently, I had the opportunity to review the course content of an online nursing program. Not surprisingly, the learning goals language matched Bloom’s taxonomy to the tee. The only problem was that the content did not meet these lofty goals; with the exception of a couple of case studies and one paper, it only contained instructor written and textbook readings. The content alone would not stimulate critical thinking in the student.

Even though “(t)eaching students to become skilled thinkers is a goal of education . . . Some studies purport that students exhibit an insufficient level of skill in critical or creative thinking” (Critical Thinking Educator Wheel, 2016, para 4). It seems that educators are failing in translating the goal of engaging higher cognitive domains into the actual learning.


I think part of the problem is that some educators do not know how or are unwilling to educate beyond using the pedagolical approach. If I can apply what I have seen in nursing education I surmise it is from the belief that important information will be missed. I find this ironic, as retention from verbal processing (reading) is 4% (Barkley, 2010).

In the acute care setting, the nurse must respond to changing patient conditions, new technologies and new medications, unexpected emergencies, unclear orders and or directions from physicians, patient questions, patient education as well as multiple demands on his time. In other words, a nurse requires critical thinking skills. The way to develop these is through the critical analysis of educational content and case studies.

Armed with my budding understanding of critical thinking I suggest that the program developer for the online course I reviewed take the time to integrate learning activities that foster critical thinking. These could include: SET 17, Variations (Barkley, 2010) where alternative situations to case studies could be developed by students; SET 22 (WebQuests) where students could research parenting web sites and blogs critically analyze them; SET 24 (Think Again!) where students agree or disagree with a common misconception in maternity care. I would also suggest the use of formative tools like matching games and mini quizzes. Case studies could also be integrated throughout the course.

For the sake of the student, for the sake of the educator and for the sake of the patient, let’s start critical thinking!


Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques – A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Critical Thinking Educator Wheel, (2016) MentoringMinds Critical Thinking for Life. Retrieved from https://www.mentoringminds.com/research/critical-thinking-educator-wheel