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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Students Not Taking Risks? Maybe It’s Us and Not Them

By Peter DeWitt — November 20, 2012 2 min read
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I was one of the middling sort, endowed with a reasonable amount of natural ability. But, I figured, if all went according to my carefully hatched plan, I could graduate with all my “to do” boxes neatly checked off, my teachers impressed if not wowed, and the ultimate achievement: an acceptance letter from the Ivy League college of my choice. It all went as planned. I didn’t learn much of anything.”

In Regrets of an Accomplished Child (N.Y. Times), Pamela Paul writes, “To be clear, what I call the accomplished child is a very different creature from the born or cultivated genius, and equally different from the aspiring superstar. With neither the superlative skill of the former nor the extraordinary efforts of the latter, the accomplished child does exactly what is expected of him. And nothing more.”

Paul is very honest that she did not go out of her way to go the extra mile. We all know that in order for students to do well, their teachers can’t work harder than them. However, in order for students to step outside of their comfort zones, they have to feel as though they can take risks in the classroom.

Too often I hear that students want to be told what to do. They don’t aspire to do things differently. I feel that is a very one-sided, and often very flawed, argument about student learning. Most students will take risks if they are encouraged to so. Don’t believe me?

Risk Takers
If you think kids don’t take risks you have never been out on an elementary school playground during recess. They try to climb trees. They leap up onto structures or they attempt to walk up the slide instead of going down it. They get disciplined for doing the “wrong” thing and learn that they have to play it safe or they may get into trouble.

It doesn’t mean that those students should be allowed to jump off a swing when they’re flying mid-air because we certainly don’t want them to get hurt. Our rules are meant to keep them safe. We want them to learn right from wrong. We don’t want them to break a leg or hurt a friend by accident.

However, it doesn’t mean students have to be bubble wrapped and told the rules all the time either. Let’s face it, we all break the rules and we learn a lot when we get caught or when things go wrong. Sometimes we learn not to do it again and other times we learn to how to do it better or differently.

If students so often take risks out on the playground, why don’t they take the same type of risks in the classroom?

The playground is a place where they have the freedom to follow their own paths and create their own games. The classroom is too often the place where they have to follow the rules and do what the teachers tell them. They aren’t as comfortable in the classroom as most are with the playground. They’re used to being told what to do in the classroom and they learn time and time again that they don’t have control when they enter.

There are many teachers who encourage creativity in the classroom and they are the ones who model to students and colleagues that the classroom is a community of learners and not a dictatorship. In addition, it helps when the principal isn’t a dictator either. Principals who model community are more likely to have teachers who model the same thing.

So we should ask ourselves a little more often whether students are allowed to take risks in our classrooms and schools. What do you do to encourage risk-taking? What do you do to make sure the Pamela Paul’s of the world do just neatly check off boxes?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.