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Student looking out window from high-rise

02 Jun Risk-Taking in the Classroom

by Kelby Zenor, Rubicon International

Am I risk taker?

I think so, but I’m not sure.

That question forces me to pause and wrestle with whether I truly embody the process of taking risks. Do I jump off buildings or eat that mystery dish in a far off land? No, because I am too scared.  But I do pick up that book that will challenge me to reevaluate my thinking. And I am always trying new things in presentations to see what works.  Do those things make me a risk taker?

I think so.

Is my kid a risk taker?  Now I really have to pause. As a parent my immediate reaction is “well, I hope not!”  But my biggest wish is that they can exemplify the understanding that you have to take risks in order to truly learn. In softer terms—you have to try new things to grow.  Raising an independent thinker means that they have to learn from their mistakes and be allowed to take risks – but they are less likely to take those risks if I have never modeled this way of learning.

Our goal as educators and parents should be to embody risk taking by not just doing something new or unknown, but also by taking the next step to evaluate its impact and have a conversation to analyze its effect.  As teachers and parents we have the obligation to model it, practice it, talk about it.

In other words, we have the obligation to teach it!

As educators we all feel the wide and constant pendulum swing within education. Every few years we go for a spin on the best-practice-tilt-a-whirl – and it’s easy to get dizzy with the changes. But Doug Reeves reminds us that research and understanding are always adjusting and adapting – hypothesis are being disproved and new ideas are created.

The question is… are we ready to take the risk to change what we do?

Create a Community of Risk Takers

It takes all of us to create any cultural shift. How do we deal with the fear of failure that may well lay behind taking that risk?

  • As a teacher you might change it up and learn a new strategy to engage your learners from Kagan Cooperative Learning or tackle a design thinking inquiry.
  • As an administrator you might foster a creative environment that encourages teachers to try something new during an observation and reflect on whether it worked or not.
  • As a parent you might use the Mindset Kit to celebrate the times when your kiddo takes a risk but does not succeed

If we are modeling these opportunities and talking about them explicitly—what I learned from taking a risk, what I might do differently next time, my feelings around it – we can begin to change the culture.

Capture Growth!

We live in a world with high expectations – from a student’s grade to a teacher evaluation.  But we need to make sure those expectation don’t scare us off from taking risks and making mistakes. Doug Reeves affirms this by stating,

The average punishes error - preventing us to take a risk. Let's challenge the status quo and capture growth, not take an average of the experiences - most of us would much rather talk about where are we now as opposed to what occurred 6 months ago.

I think about this in regards to curriculum development – how do we capture and encourage risk taking in the classroom?  I truly believe that this should occur in the reflection phase of the curriculum.  Plan something new, then talk about it and get feedback from colleagues and students.  How inspiring to students to listen to how you tried something new and, to top it off, you want their feedback.  The best way to get kids to take an authentic risk is by modeling it in the things we, as adults and community members, do!

Make It Part of Your Personal Cycle

Set some goals for adding risk taking into your process, whether it’s as a teacher reflecting on curriculum, or as a leader reflecting on how you foster this culture in what you do.

Here is a sample for a teacher when examining their units:

Risk Taking Teacher Reflections

If you are a leader, think about how you lead:

Leadership Risk Taking


As a facilitator of professional development I take this to heart – I get immediate feedback from a presentation, and then apply it the next time. I want to try new things, and if they fail I want to know. I also want to know why – why did it not click or work.

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