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Can we believe in risky business?

4 min read


When you play it too safe, you’re taking the biggest risk of your life. — Barbara

Approaching my school today, I passed two children skateboarding on a small, flat area, not particularly exposed. As is typical and expected, they had helmets on. They also wore elbow pads and kneepads that were so heavy and thick that it was obvious they would be protected from the consequences of pretty much any bad skating move they could ever make.

At the risk of mentioning something that has become legally and socially risky, I’d like to posit the educational philosophy that risk-taking is a core value for success and survival. In this age where you need a crash helmet to bike through your neighborhood and a liability form to go ice-skating, let’s consider:

1.  Risk-taking is not just for leaders. All children must learn how to fall, how to get hurt and recover, how to endure:  An attempt to deny our children this deprives them of fundamental character building.

2.  Risk-taking requires our support. Risk-taking doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and it can be hard for students to embrace it. Teachers and parents must recognize when students ask tough, challenging, out-of-the-box questions, or write audacious papers and proposals. We must thank our students when they take on assignments with no known outcome. We must support programs in experiential and expeditionary learning.

3.  Risk-taking must be embedded in a larger school culture. Of course, students and teachers can’t just go off half-cocked, doing any risky thing they please. Risk-taking must be guided by the school’s vision and mission. School mission, vision and values dedicated to expeditionary learning and open-ended learning are its greatest assets, but they are worthless if we don’t cultivate them and talk about them regularly. Parents, teachers and school administrators must refer to them constantly.

4.  Risk-taking means you will make mistakes. Every risk-taking student and school will make mistakes once in a while. We’ve made lots of them. Much of what we’ve learned is from mistakes. Perhaps the most powerful thing I’ve learned is that our mistakes have only rarely been the result of a poorly conceived idea or program. It’s almost always poor implementation the first one or two times we try a new thing — that’s where persistence, evaluation, revision and upgrading, and more persistence come in.  To succeed as a risk-taking school, we must not only create a safe environment for students to make mistakes, but be flexible enough to be able to change course if something is not right.

I have even been wondering whether all the protections we put on our children are driving them to increasing vicarious risky behaviors online. I know a helmet is good, but are we overdoing it? I’ll take a skinned knee any day!

I would also suggest that taking more risks, at least metaphorically, is a great lesson for teachers, many of whom feel trapped inside hard-edged system of standards and testing, as well as curriculum so dense-packed that experts all know it is counterproductive to try and get through in a year. Neuroscientists have shown that people don’t think well when they are under this kind of pressure. For teachers feeling this, let’s take off the padding between us and our students. Let’s risk it all for even a single, meaningful conversation or joyful Socratic discussion.

Stuart Grauer is a teacher, founding head of The Grauer School in Encinitas, Calif., and founder of the Small Schools Coalition. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. Stuart is also author of “Real Teachers.”