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 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.’
The third message for your practice is that you must use your skills as a professional to break down difficult activities into easier 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 care what others thought, because I saw it as part of the rich, varied and often completely hilarious process of learning to become a teacher.
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 affect 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 those creative, instinctive, organic approaches to learning that I describe in this book. These are the approaches that yes, do sometimes fail or make you look silly, but equally sometimes lead to astonishing leaps forward in learning.
(Indeed, some of you may be old enough to remember the pre-National Curriculum days when if your planning hadn’t quite happened for some reason or another, you could walk into the classroom with a fascinating resource and just take it from there. Not that I’m advocating this as an everyday approach, but it does lead to more inspired and creative teacher thinking. What can I do with that pine cone, or giant cardboard box, or length of plastic drainpipe? That’s the kind of teaching question I love. I once passed a squashed hedgehog on the walk up to preschool and I very nearly scraped it up and took it in for the children to examine. And do you know what, I look back now and think I wish I had!)
Of course the strong focus that we have currently on inspection, and progression, and league tables, is damaging to the risk taking ethos as well. An entire industry seems to have grown up around pleasing Ofsted, as I discussed here recently. The problem with this focus is that it assumes that we must always care about what others think. That everything can and should be measured and judged by someone else. That there is someone forever looking over our shoulders, waiting to catch us out, ready to pounce on any mistakes that we make. This attitude means risk taking becomes a dangerous and subversive act, rather than something that can and should happen in classrooms as a natural part of teaching. Potentially it stops us trying out new things, taking risks, making an a**e of ourselves, moving forwards with our learning.
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? If you didn’t care what anyone else thought? And now go and actually do it.
Note: I posted the original version of this blog entry on the great pedagoo.org site, but felt it was worth updating and re-posting here.