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What do we really mean by risk taking in the classroom?

It’s important for students to learn risk taking skills. But how do schools do that without taking some big risks themselves?

Let’s face it. We are of two minds when it comes to how we feel about kids and risk taking. We know that the teenage brain is wired to ignore consequences and to take risks without any adult encouragement, so parents spend a lot of time trying to keep their kids from doing stupid things like drinking and driving or having unprotected sex.

In the classroom, however, risk taking is often viewed as a good thing. We educators tend to praise and encourage students to take gambles and learn from their mistakes. At least, that’s what we say.

This idea can raise a few hackles and more than a few questions. What characterizes a “good risk?” How can we create a culture of risk taking in our classrooms? And what might we currently be doing that discourages risk taking in our students?

Good risk = potential growth

By definition, all risks have potential negative outcomes and obviously, there is plenty of risky behavior that we don’t want to encourage children to take. In a sense, the decision to take any risk involves a cost-benefit analysis. The risk taking I encourage in my students generally involves some potential for growth. In some cases, this growth is social.

Not too long ago, I had a student who was very talented, but he needed to step back and give his teammates a little more control over their shared project. This was incredibly difficult this for student, and risky because he had to trust in the quality of his teammates’ work if the project was to be successful. The end result was substantial growth in his collaboration skills. Other types of growth are more traditionally academic.

Next page: The right risks for the right students

In my eight grade Physical Computing course, students all begin with an idea of an invention that they want to build, but they have no idea how they will build it. Each decision in the design process involves a leap of faith as they learn how to work with unfamiliar materials and tools using an untested, original design. Occasionally, despite careful planning, students realize half-way through a project that their original design isn’t going to work, and they need to go back to square one — a huge risk!

Find risk-opportunities and align them to student needs.

Fostering healthy student risk taking means understanding where your students need to grow and what each of them perceives as risky. One student, for example, might not think twice about working out a problem on the board, while another might be terrified by the very thought. When I identify an opportunity for growth like this, I work hard to help the student understand why it is important to grow in this area. I try to provide support and encouragement around things that the student might find scary. I also get personal. I say things like, “I would love to see you take this on and be successful. I would be really proud of you.” Clearly, you can’t force a student to take a risk. If it isn’t voluntary, it isn’t really risk taking. The conversations and assessments required to identify risk opportunities and to encourage kids to take them require a lot of time. Personally, I can’t think of a more important way to spend that time.

Look for ways you might be punishing risk-takers.

Funny thing about risks — they have their own system of rewards and consequences built right in, and grades and rubrics tend to screw that up. It’s ridiculous to think that a student is going to try something innovative and untested if, in addition to the consequence of an idea that doesn’t work, he is punished with a failing grade. If a project is really well designed and grows out of a student’s genuine interests and passion, using a grade as a reward or motivator makes little sense.

Ideally, when the criteria for a project are designed, the student should have a substantial voice in how to define excellence. This allows the student to articulate what she is trying to accomplish by taking on a particular risk. For example, a student might say on a criteria sheet that she “is going to try to program her robot using the more difficult Robot-C programming language as opposed to the block-based EV3 software.” Trying this for the first time would be a huge risk, and even if the robot never gets completely programmed, the student will have learned far more than her classmates who stuck to the easier programming language. Allowing the student to incorporate her personalized learning goal into the criteria sheet as a risk, allows the teacher to assess her on her progress toward her personal goals without penalizing her for not achieving the same outcomes as her classmates.

As teachers, we need to be mindful of the fact that risk-taking is an unnatural act in most classrooms. Unless we take explicit steps to create a classroom culture that fosters risk-taking, it will not happen organically. This means talking openly about risk taking, encouraging it and praising it publicly when we see it in our students. It also means providing some opportunities for students to pursue personalized learning goals without being penalized for departing from teacher-defined outcomes.

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