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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Creating Space for Risk

Albemarle County Public Schools

Grades K-12 | Albemarle County, VA

Michael Thornton

Michael Thornton M.Ed., MAT
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Kids working independently sitting in a canoe, and in groups at a small round table and a square table at floor height

Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Cheryl Harris, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Albemarle County Public Schools.

Risk is all too often the thing least evident in schools, and yet risk is how we learn, create, even adapt. So risk is what we allow and expect in our classrooms -- risk combined with abundant opportunity and the safety of being treated as a cherished individual.

Opportunities to Excel

In Cheryl Harris' seventh-grade language arts classroom, there is comfort, safety, and space for risk. Students aren't bored, because the room -- and the learning -- is theirs. They're given some requirements, and certainly expectations, but they don't drift away from the work, because the work is theirs. They create rubrics, directions, groups, workspaces, process, product, and presentations for an audience of choice. And they lift themselves up because, in that student-created environment, it's always OK to do something they are unsure about. Upon completion of activities or projects, students discuss, reflect, and celebrate -- and it's authentic celebration because every student knows that the work is authentic. These students become better problem solvers, more creative, and better critical thinkers. Through comfort, choice, and having a safe zone for taking risks, students become better prepared for the future that awaits them.

Who are your students? What are their individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests? By building relationships through connections, you build trust and respect. Students feel comfortable when they know that your room is safe for educational risks. Choose a variety of students to be the class leader at different times. Let them shine. It's not about the teacher -- it's all about the student. Conduct activities where each of your students is in charge. Students work better when you catch them doing something well instead of calling attention to their faults. Sincere praise builds self-esteem. Offer them opportunities to excel. Start in small increments and try what comes naturally to you. Continue adding these suggestions. Always make your decisions on what's best for students.

Video yourself. Are you including all students? Do your facial expressions demonstrate your passion for working with students? Find ways to show your students how much you value them. Do you have flexibility within your classroom? Do you show your students how important they are? How do you express your trust that they'll end up making good choices? Can you sit through your entire video without being bored? If you use choice in your room, please share how it's working. If you're trying some of these techniques, what changes are you seeing in your students?

Redefining Failure

In Michael Thornton’s classrooms (individual elementary grades and soon a full K-5 space), there is comfort, safety, and space for risk. Whether in high- or low-SES schools, 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.

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." Viewing failure as a typical aspect of the learning process allows a learner to appreciate the need for risks. For this to happen, administrators, teachers, and students must redefine risk and failure for themselves. School officials must step back and allow all learners (including teachers and administrators) to take their individual journeys -- which will inevitably involve failing.

The age doesn't matter. All children, whether five or 18, deserve the chance of rising to challenges and taking risks in an environment where they know those risks are valued and celebrated, and where they know that they have a community of support. In kindergarten, children control their own spaces and choose their own technologies. Fifth grade students invent workspaces indoors and out. In third grade, they're writing their own textbooks and inventing presentation tools. At any age, children learn how to learn from their peers in a way that prepares them for life.

Choices and Chances

Fourteen feet above a middle school cafeteria floor, kids work through an iterative design process to build "treehouses" and transform this space from institutional to cool. Up here, every detail matters -- measurement, weight, the bending moment of wood -- and students discuss shear diagrams and physics. We need not discuss the "growth mindset" or tell these kids that they are "not math kids yet." Instead, we let adolescent curiosity and risk taking lead them to a place where math has never been so important.

On the floor in a summer CoderDojo, seven-year-old ELL students are busily hacking the programming blocks in Scratch. Not only do they need their character to fall below the X-axis (negative integers), they also need to control the speed of the fall. They're busy developing an understanding of vectors -- without teachers, paced curriculum, or even sitting in a chair. They're taking risks with subjects that they won't be expected to learn for years because they're designing a game that matters to them.

In a kindergarten class, boys sit in rocking chairs perched on a windowsill, looking alternately at picture books and the scene outside. "If you rock too hard," the teacher says, "the chair will move and you'll fall." This is better than saying, "No." Now the boys' classmates become rocking-speed-enforcers, and a learning community is strengthened.

Teachers learn to learn from each other as well when spaces for risk become the norm, and the same is true for administrators. Creating space for risk begins at the top of any school system. Principals must have space for risk, so that teachers have space for risk, so that students have space for risk. Permission to take chances is essential to an environment that allows growth. We cannot bubble wrap our kids, so we cannot allow our teachers to be fearful, so principals must know that their job is enabling risk. There is a process to building risk taking in schools. It must start at kindergarten and build from there. Choice plays a key role. The more opportunity that students have to make decisions within the classroom, the more opportunity they have to succeed and fail. Both outcomes will help them learn and grow as students and as members of society.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Albemarle County Public Schools.
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Adam Buchbinder's picture
Adam Buchbinder
Passionate about teaching students with learning differences with empowerment, grit, and resilience

Thanks Michael and Cheryl for sharing your insights on risk taking, autonomy, and failure. It is so important to encourage students to explore and pursue their interests and passions even when it takes them out of their comfort zone. As we look to foster a safe environment for risk taking we must also rethink our assessment models for it is those that hinder exploration and risk. Would be interested to hear your how you implement assessments in your classrooms.

Kathryn's picture
Kathryn
A former student, now the Mayor of Munchkinland!

I teach students in a self-contained Gifted classroom (actually 2 classes), and "perfectionism" and their very nature prevail. I try to value discomfort, mistakes, getting out of your comfort zone, etc., mostly by example (yes, I am quite comfortable with my mistakes:)...but this article really helped me see that others are on my same quest. We've a long way to go. Parents' pressure is hard to overcome. I hope this conversation continues!

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