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Learning Strategies

Why Taking Risks in the Classroom Pays off for Students—and Teachers

By AJ Bianco     Feb 14, 2018

My sixth graders entered the room, found their seats and in typical fashion, I asked them to take out their homework—but it wasn’t a typical day. It was my first experiment flipping our classroom. As the groans from my students got louder, I knew something wasn’t right. I panicked.

Hands immediately went up and my students began to get defensive. Some said the video was never posted, others told me the link didn’t work but I had checked that link multiple times. The period couldn’t end fast enough. I was tense and ready to throw in the towel.

For the past 13 years, I have been a social studies teacher at the middle school level. I’ve taught in a few districts with unique missions and priorities, but one thing that has remained constant is the fact that to make sure that learning remains engaging and relevant for the modern learner, risk-taking in the classroom is a necessity.

To build a classroom culture where risk-taking is encouraged for students, a teacher also needs to be willing to try new things. By taking risks, and in some cases even failing in front of our students, we demonstrate that not everything works as planned and prove that we can rebound from any situation.

Many of my students don’t have this mindset. Many believe they need to succeed immediately and that any failure they encounter will be devastating. This viewpoint can be debilitating for a learner.

I’ve always enjoyed bringing new techniques, methodologies and tools into the classroom, but by nature I am risk-averse, so my excitement is typically followed by a slew of big fears. Sometimes these fears get the best of me, but I’m working on finding a balance between my love and fear of taking risks in the classroom.

My First Big Risk: Flipping the Script

When I became a teacher, I promised myself that I wouldn’t teach from the textbook and bore my students with presentations. Unfortunately, for the first five years of my career, that’s exactly what I did.

My classroom was set up with desks in rows and my lessons included lectures with PowerPoint presentations, worksheets and textbook work. In the summer of 2010, I recognized that my teaching needed to change in a big way. My lessons were stale, my students were disengaged and I was bored.

With a newfound passion for my career, I was ready to try something new. After months of research, I decided to bring flipped learning into my classroom. While this was a relatively young idea for the field, it felt like the solution to many of my problems. I spent the next five years learning everything I could about flipped learning, piloting new edtech tools and unlearning many of the traditional teaching practices I was taught as I pursued my teaching degree.

The more I learned about flipping my classroom, the more fears that developed. How would I survive without the comfort of my PowerPoint presentations? How would classroom management change if I relinquished control over to my students?

As I experimented with this approach, I found my bearings. Though there were moments I wished I had my slides, my students and I always worked together to figure out where to go next. While there were a few occasions when chaos broke out in the beginning as students navigated the transition, they only lasted minutes and we could always pull it together shortly after.

It took time to tweak the model to get the right balance of freedom and structure, but as we iterated, I found that stepping away from the traditional lecture model and into flipped learning helped me raise student engagement and that was powerful.

Flipped learning was my first foray into risk-taking, but as the world of teaching and learning continues to grow and change, and I’m committed to consistently morphing my practices in response.

The thing about risk-taking is that it doesn’t get easier with practice. After all of my years in the classroom, I know what to expect when I come in each morning, but each year brings a new group of learners and sometimes a different grade level or classroom. These changes, and the pressure I put on myself to consistently be reshaping my practices to give my students what they need is anxiety-provoking. But I can’t sit back and repeat the same stale lessons year after year because it’s tradition. My students deserve more.

Even though I haven’t found some magic remedy to make my fears slip away, I have taken some actions to build up my confidence so I can continue to push the envelope in my classroom.

Name Your Fears and Gain Perspective

Low engagement, losing control of the class, students not buying into my lesson hooks, reactions from stakeholders and decreased test scores are just a few of the fears that have plagued me over the years. Saying them out loud has helped me and putting them down on paper feels even better.

Talking about them can help too. I’ve had conversations with colleagues and friends to better define my fears, flesh them out and even consider worst-case scenarios. But the most powerful step I’ve taken is to consider best-case scenarios.

Instead of asking myself “what will happen if it doesn’t work?” I’ve started to reframe the question to “what can happen if it does work?” In most cases, the hope of what can happen is much more enticing than the fear of what might not.

Add “Considerations” to Your Lesson Plans

A very tactical action I took to overcome my fears is carving out time to consider what challenges could arise when trying new things, and coming up with a plan for how to resolve them so I’m not handling everything on the fly. Sometimes I even add them to my lesson plans. By making small notes and finding a few backup activities just in case things start to unravel, I’m more prepared and confident.

Take conflict resolution for example. In my classroom, we do a lot of partner and group work, so I often need to plan ahead for possible challenges during periods of collaboration. As a middle school teacher, my students need to learn conflict resolution tactics, so my solutions usually entail letting the students problem-solve together.

Each time I plan a lesson that has group work, I make a mental (or written) note reminding myself to breathe, step back and not rush to fix every situation. When frustrating or unplanned for situations occur, my students are watching me and waiting for a reaction and the best thing I can do is to stand back, hold my ground and give them space and time to solve their problems so they can become better at communicating with each other.

Celebrate Victories Big and Small

The hardest thing about commiting to innovation is that there isn’t really an end to it.

Most recently, I have become fascinated with increasing student choice in my classroom to empower students to choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. I’m already convinced that choice is a good thing, so, what am I fearful of? I’m anxious about the increased workload of creating additional choices, nervous that my students might make choices that don’t push them to grow and worried that lessons will take longer.

Although I have the passion and drive to continuously innovate, my fears always come back, so I need to constantly reflect on victories big and small that occur in my classroom each day and remember that many of them stem from taking a chance and not knowing what the outcome would be.

AJ Bianco is a middle school social studies teacher at Harrington Park School District in Harrington Park, New Jersey.

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