When NOT taking risks is the riskiest thing to do

PART 1: Indicators

I often hear people talking about the need for educators to have the confidence and courage to take risks and I’ve started to question what that really means. After all, whilst singing a song in public feels like a HUGE risk for one person, for another, it comes as easy as a stroll in the park.

Prompted by some great discussions with a whole raft of people, I’ve been looking into the world of ‘proxy indicators’. In truth, I have been dealing with these things for some time now as part of my action research work around creativity, quality learning and self-evaluation processes. These have all lead me to ask three important questions whenever I’m working alongside colleagues to unpick the intended outcomes of the quality of learning they are either intending to design or have just delivered:

Example: Encouraging learners to think creatively in science…

What did this look like? …learners’ body language was ‘open’…they used encouraging hand gestures towards each other when they were clarifying ideas…they made good eye-contact with each other…they smiled…they were animated…

What did this sound like? …there was a ‘buzz’, conversation within groups was focused on the task at hand…they asked questions of each other and of the task…their discussions used ‘piggy-backing’ to build a consensus…’yes…and’ were used (rather than ‘no…but’)..it was noisy (not rowdy!)

What did this feel like?…for me, I felt ‘free’ to observe, question and coach…I felt they were in control of the direction of the task…they reported that they felt ‘lost in discussion’ and lost track of time…the lesson went quickly for us and we agreed that we wanted to stay until we were finished…the bell annoyed one learner so much that she said as much on her post-it note for the feedback wall.

The richest of these conversations naturally lead into the world of micro-teaching, which is where we can identify how the smallest of interventions, words, reactions can result in ‘learning impact’. John Hattie has done some brilliant work on this in “Visible Learning” and there’s a connected resource at Geoff Petty’s website that’s well worth looking at. What it comes down to is consciously knowing, at a micro-level, what we can do as designers and deliverers of learning that will result in PROGRESS in learning.

PART 2: Risk-taking

So, whereas I am certain that I will be posting more on all of this as my research continues, I thought I’d put some ideas about the proxy indicators of ‘risk-taking’ out to readers of this blog.

Question: What does ‘risk-taking’ for an educator really look, sound and feel like? How do I recognise risk-taking in my own educational practice when it happens and what do I consciously need to do to ensure it becomes characteristic of the learning that I promote?

Suggested indicators for some might be…

STANDING BACK: for many educators, being quiet, stepping away from the reins and letting learners ‘just find out’ and make their own discoveries (and mistakes, for that matter, if you name them that), will be the riskiest thing we can do. Consider what tends to happen when any kind of judgemental observation takes place. Consciously standing back certainly feels like the riskiest option when there’s somebody grading the progress of your learners as they get to grips with the task you have set them. 

MAKING IT HARDER: if learners are to make progress in a lesson, they have to experience some kind of change. From the moment they enter the lesson, they need to think, consider, explore, puzzle and probe to make a discovery that will lead them to take something (new knowledge, understanding, insight, skills, abilities or capacities) away from your lesson that they would have missed out on had they not been there. Ensuring that this progress is significant and meaningful involves posing questions and tasks that are authentically CHALLENGING. To do this, we need to think about what learners will find difficult and start from here as the entry point to the curriculum we are offering.

ASKING NOT TELLING: when the moment of struggle surrounds our learners, we have a critical decision to make…provide or hold-back. Perhaps it feels like the riskiest thing in the world to us to not give a solution to a learner when they are clearly struggling. It may well feel like the toughest thing in the world for us to respond to a solution-seeking question or request by to asking a question. But that question allows the task of learning to remain in the hands of the learner. The riskiest questions from us might sound like this:

“How might you find that out?”

“Who else in the class might be able to help you with this (other than me)?”

“What else could you try to solve this one?”

I’ve got some more indicators, but this post is already MUCH longer than I intended, so I will leave them for another time. 

Some may argue, that in the world as it is and the world as it likely to be, to ‘play safe’ and continue to do the things that feel safe to us is, in fact the riskiest thing to do. I am really interested in what you think about this and I would love your feedback.

2 thoughts on “When NOT taking risks is the riskiest thing to do

  1. Hello,I contacted you last week, but I havent heard back from you yet so I thought that I’d send another comment just to make sure you recieved my request. My name is Lindsey and Im a writer. Do you accept guest posts? I’d very much like to contribute a piece if possible. Please email me and we can discuss the topic I have in mind. I look forward to hearing from you. My email is lindseywright39@gmail.com

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