Sunday, March 3, 2013

Creating a Risk-Taking Classroom Environment

As teachers, we know the importance of investing our time and energies into building trust and relationships with our students.

But just because your students trust you, doesn’t mean they’re ready to take risks. For true risk-taking to occur, students need to trust their classmates too.

Think about it. Who do most students want approval from? Their peers.

Are students in your classroom willing to take risks in front of their classmates?

The other day, a student, who is well respected by her peers and her teachers, told me she intentionally minimizes her class participation in several classes because she doesn’t want to be seen in a negative light by her peers.

Hearing this, I sat down at lunch with a group of our high-achieving seniors and asked, “Are there times where you censor yourself in class because you don’t want to be perceived negatively by your peers?” Almost universally, they answered, “Yes.”

One expanded on her answer, “In some classes I don’t even like it when a teacher calls on me to share an answer or my thoughts.”

Ouch!  Here were some of our best and brightest saying that they’re not comfortable answering or asking questions. They held back during class discussions. They intentionally minimized their risk-taking at the expense of educational exploration. 

So how can you encourage risk-taking in your classroom?

1.     Demonstrate and Model Risk Taking
This can be as simple as stating at the beginning of a new lesson, “I’m trying something new today with this lesson. It’s been a pretty good lesson in the past, but it wasn’t one of my best. I worked hard to create an engaging lesson. Let’s see how it goes.”

2.     Model Failure
I’m a horrible artist. I know it and as soon as I complete my first drawing, my students know it. One of my first lessons of the year requires me to draw a prehistoric scene.  After completing the drawing, I tell the students, “You have 30 seconds to laugh and make comments about my drawing.”

During the 30 seconds, one student—either an immense suck-up, someone who is equally inept at drawing or one of the kindest people on Earth—complements my drawing.

After the laughter subsides, I build upon the kind comment. “Thanks for the kind words. Simple complements like that can inspire. Most of you laughed or made snide comments; I’m fine with them because I know I’m an awful artist, and I think it’s important to be able to laugh at myself. But, lets always be mindful of others as we move forwards. We’re going to be with each other for another 80-plus days for 90 minutes each day; we want to be positive with each other.”

3.     Provide risk-taking opportunities
As teachers, we must give up some control. Students need autonomy. The learning needs to be real, relevant, interesting and meaningful. As teachers we must make learning possible. We cannot learn for the students.

One of the simplest means of providing risk-taking and authentic learning opportunities is to share your learning objective/target with the students and tell the students, “How can you show me that you [insert learning target]?”

Allow the students to brainstorm and collaborate. Initially it may be awkward for you as a teacher to relinquish some control (students also may be uncomfortable at first), but the end reward of authentic learning will be immense.

This philosophy, of course, is at the heart of project-based learning, but is just as effective with a simple daily assignment. Engaging assignments stimulate curiosity and creativity. As Daniel Pink stated in an interview with Scholastic, “Science shows us the better way to motivation is to build more on autonomy, our desire to be self-directed; on mastery, which is our desire to get better and better at something that matters; and on purpose, which is our desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.”

4.     Minimize the pain of making an error
In providing student with choices, many students will choose a safe, time-tested approach. Students—often it’s the ones with the highest GPA’s—are afraid to take risks because it can negatively impact their grades. Learning is a process that shouldn’t be graded. Errors and mistakes should be embraced as part of the learning process. If the project or assignment is being used for assessment, allow students the opportunity to demonstrate mastery in another way or extend the due date.

As teachers, it’s our job to instill in students the realization that effort will lead to improvement and learning. In her book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Amy Edmonson says, we must highlight failures as learning opportunities “by avoiding punishing others for having taken well-intentioned risks that backfired, leaders inspire people to embrace error and failure and deal with them in a productive manner.”

Students who trust their teachers believe that teachers will turn their failures into learning opportunities. They know their efforts will be valued and rewarded by their teachers and peers. Only in such environments, will students be willing to take risks.