“If I am not in the world simply to adapt to it, but to transform it, and if it is not possible to change the world without a certain dream or vision for it, I have to make use of all the possibilities I have, not just to speak of my utopia, but also to participate in practices consistent with it.” Paulo Freire
What Is Risk-Taking and Why Does It Matter?
One of the characteristics of the IB learner profile is risk-taker. The explanation of the trait states that as risk-takers, “we approach uncertainty with forethought and determination; we work independently and cooperatively to explore new ideas and innovative strategies. We are resourceful and resilient in the face of challenges and change.”
Our world today is, indeed, facing immense challenges and changes. Climate crises, food instability, wars, natural disasters, racism, sexism, the rise of artificial intelligence, the aftermath of COVID…the list goes on and on, leaving one feeling overwhelmed and, at times, paralyzed by fear. Therefore, risk-taking has become even more important than ever before. Risk-taking is no longer just about channeling our creativity, trying out a new idea, or being open to new approaches. Risk-taking is a way to be better prepared for the future and is key to making the most of what we have in the present.
As teachers, our responsibility is huge. How do we go into the classroom every day knowing that the world is on the brink, and still maintain hope? How do we prepare students for a future that is unknown and uncertain, while still maintaining a sense of stability? The answer is, we act with courage. We act as risk-takers. For what is risk-taking if not recognizing the fear inherent in life, and then pushing past it to carry on with our day-to-day activities?
What Does Risk-Taking Look Like in the Classroom?
Risk-taking takes many forms in the classroom. At its heart is the willingness of the teacher to be vulnerable and honest with students, and to try novel approaches. In order to do this, teachers must give up traditional structures of power and control and embrace a more democratic, messy, and decentralized style of teaching.
In risk-averse classrooms, there is a strong desire for quiet busyness. The teacher seeks to manage student behavior and the goal is compliance and task completion. But in a classroom that values risk-taking, learning occurs, as the IB stated above, both “cooperatively and independently.” There is a sense of discovery and wonder as students and teachers alike grapple with problems and possible solutions.
The spirit of risk-taking also involves play. How can we learn about new things if we do not joyfully try them? How can we push ourselves beyond our boundaries if we do not go outside of them? Risk-taking involves both small and large actions to build connection and empathy within communities.
Inspiring Stories of Risk-Taking:
At Vientiane International School in Laos, Megan co-teaches a Grade 7 science class. In their second unit of inquiry, the students were investigating the impacts of climate chaos on the environment and discussing possible ways to solve the crisis. The essential question was, “Can humans improve an ecosystem?” In order to grapple with the question more authentically, the science teacher took a risk and created a summative task that allowed students to design their own lab experiments centered around improving the school ecosystem. Usually, in science classes, every student does the same lab for ease of assessment and management purposes. When everyone is working on only one task, it’s easier to control the outcomes and the process.
On the contrary, in this instance, every student worked independently on an area of interest. They conducted field research throughout the school campus. They measured factors like air quality, water quality, and soil quality. They built birdhouses, planned butterfly gardens, and planted mango seeds. It was contextualized learning. However, many students struggled to complete their labs. The seedlings died, the birds left, the soil pH levels remained the same…
Was this unit a failure? Upon reflection, the teachers don't think so. The students were definitely learning, learning how to fail and try again, learning how to properly design an investigation, and learning about the inherent complexities of investigating real-life problems. It didn’t end the way the teachers had wanted it to end. Yet, that is often the case with risk-taking. We try things without being sure of the results. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t. That’s okay. Because it is only through risk-taking that we can grow and change our practice.
Not far from Laos, at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, the Grade 5 learning support teacher, Jenn Crawford, shared a presentation on neurodiversity with students during community building time. This involved risk-taking because students and adults were talking about neurodivergent learners and learning differences openly for the first time. While this presentation was aimed at creating awareness and empathy, it also offered neurodiverse learners a safe space to advocate for themselves.
Later, the elementary learning support team had a presentation for the parents as well. The intention was the same. It provided parents with an avenue to seek answers and ask uncomfortable questions, thus preparing them and their children for the future. It also helped the school community embrace and practice diversity, inclusion, and belonging in perhaps the simplest and most authentic way.
But is any of this possible without the teachers and students engaging in play, the joyful pursuit of learning, and letting go of traditional structures and mindsets? Is any of this possible without teachers approaching the future with forethought and determination? We think not!
What Might Prevent Us From Risk-Taking?
If we stay in our comfort zones, we are comfortable but nothing changes. Things remain status quo. The planet keeps warming. The poor stay poor. Us versus them divisions remain. Differently abled people continue to see themselves as less abled. The systems of oppression that hold us down continue to hold us down. The world’s problems continue to multiply!
Our need for comfort should not prevent us from action. If we are comfortable, it is because we have the privilege of being comfortable. Many don’t have that choice. For those of us that do, we need to step beyond our cocoons. We need to accept living in a bit of discomfort for the betterment of society.
How Might We Foster a Culture of Risk-Taking?
In order to encourage risk-taking amongst our students and ourselves, it may be helpful to look at mentor texts and examples of both fictional and real people who have led with courage. Picture books are inspirational and can be read aloud to learners at any age level.
In a beautiful book called The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot, the authors, Alice and Martin Provensen, depict Bleriot’s struggles to build one of the world’s first successful airplanes. Bleriot gets banged up and bruised yet continues to push himself, despite having no background in engineering. Why? Because he is passionate about flight and deeply believes that what he is trying to do is possible, even though no one has done it before.
In another book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein, the compelling story of Phillippe Petit is shared. Petit was an acrobat who walked on a tightrope between the newly constructed twin towers in New York City in 1974. Was Petit a little crazy? Perhaps. Did he break a few laws? Perhaps. But he also took an incredible risk that paid off and resulted in one of the most awe-inspiring artistic feats ever executed.
Yet another important way to encourage a culture of risk-taking is by fostering a sense of safety, physical, emotional, and intellectual. When teachers and students feel safe, they are motivated to step outside their comfort zones and challenge tradition and routine in thoughtful ways.
In Defense of Risk-Taking
Another title for this article might have been, In Defense of Risk-Taking. For, although there is a case to be made for remaining in safe territory, there is an equally (if not more) compelling case for foraying into uncharted waters. And now, in this era of increasing uncertainty, it seems like a good time for us to forge new paths. As Simon de Pury says in the reality television show Work of Art, “Be Bold. Be Amazing.” Or, if you prefer, as Virgil said in the Aeneid, “Fortune favors the brave.”
Megan Vosk teaches the middle years program individuals and societies at Vientiane International School. She is also the chair of the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) teacher-leader committee.
Shafali is a multilingual learner specialist who currently teaches at the American Embassy School.