Thursday, December 30, 2010

Taking risks

One of the main reasons that the uptake of technology in education is so slow is the simple fact that it requires effort and a willingness to move out of the comfort zone. If you'rea teacher and you have successfully developed courses and teaching methods that work reasonably well, why should you try to change a seemingly winning formula? If you're a student and you get on well enough in school by simply doing what the teacher asks, why should you put in extra effort to learn things that are not demanded of you?

Play at Your Own Risk by sjgadsby, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  sjgadsby 

Isn't it all about willingness to take risks and try new ideas without knowing whether they will work or not? The question is if risk-taking is encouraged in education. I suspect the answer is no. The general trend is to play safe, otherwise you might fail your exam or risk criticism from colleagues, students or parents. Playing safe means resisting change and that's all too common in education today no matter how much we enthuse over the enormous opportunities that are available using digital media. Even if we present a compelling case for change the same arguments always come echoing back:
  • It's too expensive, we can't afford all that just now.
  • There's not enough scientific evidence that it works.
  • Your ideas sound very interesting but we have to deal with real world problems before we can consider all this high tech stuff.
  • Aren't you being a bit too optimistic? We tried all that 10 years ago and it didn't work.
Many teachers who try to innovate meet with these objections and it's hard not to go with the flow in the end. Even if the teachers agree to innovate it's not always so easy to convince the students that innovation is good. Sometimes students can be more conservative than the teachers and questions like "Is this bit in the exam?" can have an immediate deflating effect. The problem is that by playing safe you learn very little.

There's an article on this theme in Faculty Focus by E. Shelley Reid called Teaching Risk-Taking in the College Classroom. We need to create an atmosphere of risk tolerance where you get credit for innovation even if it isn't as polished as playing it safe.

"Risk taking and right-answer achieving can appear to be contradictory goals for students in our classrooms. When the correctness stakes are high and no other criteria are visible, everyone plays it safe. If we want our students to take risks, we need to create classrooms in which, at least in some designated zones, risk taking is more visible, accessible, and desirable than the alternatives."

Encouraging risk-taking leads to new discoveries and learning opportunities. Students and pupils need to realize that they are learning for their own future, not to please the teacher or examiner. You could say that if it's not in the exam, it's probably worth learning.

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