When Risks in the Classroom Lead to Rewards

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America’s K-12 education system has it all figured out. With its institutionalized best practices and proven techniques, teachers need not experiment or take risks. Any experimenting or risk-taking might lead to failure, and failure is impermissible within a system driven by No Child Left Behind and the infinite testing data it produces. Why would teachers take risks?

High-ranking consultants and district officials have mapped out intricate plans; teachers simply have to execute. A recent study conducted at the University of Arkansas even found students in the "Master's in the Art of Teaching" program avoided riskier choices at a significantly higher rate than law or graduate business students, hinting that education attracts more risk-averse individuals than other professions. Teachers, including myself, often create planning documents with set routines and recycle them year after year, providing stability and predictability within the classroom. Risk-taking doesn’t appear to belong in K-12 education.

Despite this widely-spread notion, some teachers have the audacity to swim against the tide by forming hypotheses, taking risks, and iterating upon results. In Chicago, Catherine Turner’s 7th grade math students appeared to prefer watching paint dry for those 65 minutes of the school day. Gaping yawns and slouched postures littered her classroom, while homework completion was sliding toward 50%. Business as usual couldn’t remain business as usual. In a desperate attempt for any idea to engage her students, Turner dug through student surveys administered the first day of class in an attempt to garner as to what might interest her students. After a few minutes of reviewing extracurricular listings, Turner formulated her hypothesis: “sports will engage my students.”

Further thinking drove her to establish a fantasy basketball league for her class. “I knew as much about rocket science as I did about basketball, much less fantasy basketball,” she says. “But I also knew that to engage my students, I was going to have to step outside of my comfort zone in joining the learning instead of simply leading it.”

The project initially began with the basic tasks of students tracking and graphing the statistics in a notebook. But through student feedback and iteration, it evolved to include more complex elements like predictive analytics and statistical correlations. “Soon, the students who used to fall asleep in class were the ones asking to work with me at lunch to improve their chances in the league.”

And it all started with a risk.

Riley Sizemore, a social studies teacher from Atlanta, also went counter-culture after several of his students opined that his class “didn’t matter,” since only English Language Arts and math determined grade level matriculation. Troubled by this student sentiment, Sizemore began brainstorming on how to bring his class back to life.

The following Monday, students discovered something baffling as they walked through the door. Desks were formed into a three-row semicircle split down the middle by a navy runner rug leading to a makeshift podium. Each desk had a card taped to it denoting a name and the state and party they represented. Over the weekend students had been elected to United States Senate.

“The first few days were clumsy and confusing, especially as I introduced more of the Senate’s Rules of Debate to govern class discussion. As more classes went by, I learned what worked and what didn’t, evolving the structure to what it is today four years later. I’m now known as the Congress guy around the building.”

The result? A large number of Sizemore’s students have gone on to pass the Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics exam.

And it all started with a risk.

There have always been teachers willing to push classroom boundaries for the sake of their students. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath highlight Jane Elliot who entered her third-grade classroom the day after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Her all-white students of Riceville, Iowa could not grasp who would want him dead, or why. Elliott said, “I knew it was time to deal with this in a concrete way, because we’d talked about discrimination since the first day of school.” So, she came to class the next day with an experiment.

Students were divided into two groups: those with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. She then made a shocking announcement: brown-eyed students are superior to blue-eyed students. Quickly the brown-eyed students began wielding their superiority by belittling the blue-eyed students. The next day Elliot made unexpectedly announcement she had been wrong and that brown-eyed children were actually inferior, immediately reversing the flow of discrimination. From this experiment, Elliot directly exposed her students to concept of prejudice, building understanding and empathy as a result. Late studies showed that her students were significantly less prejudice than students who had not gone through the exercise.

Turner, Sizemore, and Elliot didn’t find success instantaneously. Risk-taking and humble learning were essential components of the process. From personal experience and observation, students respect and work hardest for teachers who take such risks and are willing to learn aside them. Jim Henson nailed it when he remarked, “Students don’t remember what you teach them. They remember what you are.” For students to develop essential 21st century skills like critical thinking and problem solving, teachers must be critical thinkers and problem solvers.

And it all starts with risk. 

Warren Hawkins is a former educator of three years, having served as a founding teacher at KIPP Nashville College Prep. He is currently pursuing a M.Ed from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a concentration on technology and innovation.

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