Risky Teaching

It’s often said that we’re becoming more and more risk averse as a society. Certainly, it seems to me that schools and teachers are less willing to take risks than they were when I first came into the profession in the 1990s. Ironically, at the same time as we become less likely to take risks, we have become ever more aware that taking risks is vital for effective learning. Indeed, taking risks is probably one of the most important factors in effective learning. Because if students (and teachers) are not willing to take risks in their learning, then their progress is going to be either slow or non existent.

For example, think about how someone learns to juggle. If I want to become better at juggling, I have to try to do it, which means I risk dropping the balls. Indeed, worse than that, it’s highly likely that I will drop the balls, especially when I first begin to learn. And if I drop the balls, I risk looking like a fool, even more so if I’m doing it in front of my peers. So, I have to be brave enough to be willing to fail, and brave enough not to care what anyone else thinks.

There are some key pedagogical messages in this for teachers. First, that one of the most important things you can do in your classroom is to create a climate where children support each other, and where disrespect for another person’s efforts is seen as completely unacceptable. Second, that you must make risk taking, and its friends ‘making mistakes’, ‘giving it a go’ and ‘getting stuck’, seem like a really cool bunch of dudes. One of the very best ways you can do this is to show yourself making mistakes and coping with failure. Or, as I often say to teachers when I’m running a training day: ‘As a teacher, you must never be afraid to make a complete a**e of yourself.’ Another way you can do this is to stop believing that every piece of work must have a finished ‘product’ – a beautifully presented news report, or picture, or whatever. Sometimes get the children to give it a try, share their ideas, and then simply throw it away.

The third message for your practice is that you must use your skills as a professional to break down difficult activities into simpler steps. That way your children only have to take one small risk, then another, then another, to move forwards. And finally, that perhaps the most important thing of all for a teacher is that you get to know your students as well as you possibly can. That way you will understand who is brave enough to make big mistakes to move forwards with their learning, and who has a more fragile personality and needs more help. This is a key part of what differentiation is about.

A friend of mine manages a clinical research centre for the NHS – it’s a pretty high-powered job and she frequently feels nervous about doing it properly. She recently went on a training course and afterwards she told me all about it, because she knows that I’m really interested in all things training related. One of the first things they asked her on the course was ‘If you were 10% braver in your professional life, what would you do?’ The question really struck a chord: both with her, and with me. It occurred to me that when I first started teaching I probably was 10% braver. I probably was at least 10% more likely to try something risky in my classroom, even if a lot of the time those risks meant my lessons went completely pear shaped. I honestly didn’t much care what others thought of what happened in my classroom, because I saw it as part of the rich, varied and often completely hilarious process of learning to become a teacher. I was doing it for my kids, after all, and not for some external audience.

So, why is it that teachers, as professionals, have become more risk averse in the past few decades? All those risk assessments surely can’t have helped. If we constantly focus on what is dangerous, eventually this must skew our perspective on how likely these dangerous events are to occur. Certainly, the more formal and prescriptive the curriculum has become, the less teachers have been able to take creative, instinctive, organic approaches to learning. These are the approaches that yes, do sometimes fail, but equally sometimes lead to astonishing leaps forward in learning. And a strong focus on inspection, and progression, and league tables, is damaging as well. Because this assumes that we must always care about what others think about what we do – the antithesis of what risk taking is all about. Surely we do what we do because we believe in its value for our children, and not because some external person will pat us on the back and say ‘oh aren’t you great’.

I’d like to finish this blog post with a challenge. Consider your answer to the question I talked about earlier. What would you do in your classroom today if you were 10% braver? What would you do if you didn’t care what anyone else thought? And now go and actually do it.


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