Opportunity vs Risk

“I remembered that the real world was wide and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse….”

                                                                                Charlotte Bronte, from Jane Eyre

When setting out to make changes in the classroom one of the variables considered, whether consciously or unconsciously, is risk.

  • What if the change does not work?
  • What if I can’t cover the curriculum in time? (where the exam is set externally)
  • What if parents complain?
  • What if my fellow teachers no longer respect my teaching?
  • What if it takes too much time?

All of these potential risks (and more) might be considered as a teacher contemplates change to their teaching practice. My guess is that many of us work to minimize risk and our tolerance for risk to create an invisible line for our choices. Lack of risk is comforting as the desired outcomes appear guaranteed (I can cover the course in time, parent’s won’t complain, etc.).

But what if a certain amount of risk is essential for deep learning to occur? And what if the entire process of risk taking is integral to deep learning and more related to the final outcomes?

Does risk vs. opportunity look something like the graph below (we could switch axises for risk and opportunity)? Do larger risks produce larger opportunities? Does growth lie somewhere outside of our comfortable risk range (above the green line) and lie where we begin to become uncomfortable?

Lines show 2 possible relationships between opportunity and risk.
Lines show 2 possible relationships between opportunity and risk.

Where does the right tension exist? Is it the same tension for everyone? Do some people perceive the relationship as the red line and some see it as the yellow line? Can we build up a tolerance to risk? If there is no ongoing risk taking in the classroom (by both teacher and students) can deeper learning occur?

And if risk is the master guide to where opportunity may lie, does it mean we can’t venture into deeper learning without risk in the uncomfortable range? And when teachers ask for prescriptive blueprints for EXACTLY how to carry out new teaching practices are they really saying: “I want no risk; I want/need a guaranteed outcome.” When we prepare canned lock step blueprints for change and hand them to teachers, are we really surprised that no transformative change comes from it? Similar to people who pay ridiculous amounts of money to “hunt” for trophy animals; the outcome is guaranteed but the risk involved in the process is removed. Isn’t this what we do when we use worksheets and canned courses to guarantee the outcome but in the process remove all risk and also deep learning?

Finally and maybe most importantly, are there ways to minimize risk and maximize opportunity (as in the yellow line) but also keep risk high enough to have a PROCESS of growth that is vital and dynamic? For example, does working collaboratively with another teacher or cohort of teachers minimize risk but keep risk high enough so the individual invests and commits to the process? Does the Flipped classroom minimize risk by providing a solid traditional (low risk) fallback position in the way of videos and creates “protected” opportunity?

As with the societal challenge of balancing the risks associated with technological change and the opportunities afforded by online participation, we need to work towards building environments where we can thrive AND take uncomfortable risks. Connected Learning: an agenda for research and design, a research synthesis report, points out: “that not all risk results in harm and, crucially, a certain amount of risk is vital for building resilience and learning to cope.” While “policy efforts focus [ed] on the effort simply to reduce or eliminate such risks …this can only be achieved by preventing many potentially valuable online activities.”

Is it not the balance of risk and opportunity that allows for growth and transformative change in our classrooms and with our teaching practices? If we focus only on policies and protocols to eliminate risk don’t we (haven’t we) prevent the processes that facilitate our learners and teachers from becoming resilient and capable? And if we ourselves are not visible risk takers and opportunity makers will our students ever be?

8 thoughts on “Opportunity vs Risk

  1. I love this! I am taking a colleague on a bit of a trip this year as we stray away from the canned curriculum and move toward research and inquiry on a global perspective. Your post really hits home for me, since what we are doing involves a big, uncomfortable risk.

    • Hi Jess,
      The first time taking a big risk is the most uncomfortable and then your tolerance builds as you realize that even when it does not work out, it still is a ton better than what was there before.
      Best of luck in your risk taking adventures!

  2. Seth Godin, one of my personal heroes, says school should teach two things:
    1. Leadership
    2. How to take risks

    There is absolutely no way one can grow without taking big risks. Risks can be minimized, sure, but then so will the growth.

    School should be the biggest risk taking environment we go through in life. Instead, it is the exact opposite. It is actually worse than the opposite as for the most part, it crushes the risk taking through penalizing mistakes and makes students fit in, not stand out.

    Unfortunately, this cycle is then repeated again and again as those risk averse students become the teachers. And on it goes.

    Taking risks is a skill. It can be learned. I strongly believe that massive change is about to happen and the ones who have been taking big risks are going to find they have the greatest opportunities.

    • Jake. You are always on point. I appreciate your insight and willingness to look just a little bit farther out onto the horizon of change and what is to come.
      Your comment is true but a sad truth. We train our students to avoid risks as they are too “costly” and might prevent “success.” I think we have become so focused on the end point and product of ed (grad rates, failure rates, averages etc) and have forgotten that the process is more valuable, and ultimately what will really define success for our children.
      I think tolerance or intolerance to risk is learned as is viewing risk as a negative factor rather than a positive one. Conversely though, I think the utter lack of risk is why many (most) students find school so boring. Life without risk is very dull and deadening, I think kids intuitively know this. And too, I think this may be why teachers can become so bored with teaching over the years if it becomes a scripted activity.

  3. Do you post any of your biology lectures online? I’m studying various approaches to flipped classrooms and I’m always curious about the specific resources used for the “at-home learning” piece.

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