Off the Back Burner

Serendipity–the lovely coincidences in life where things seem to connect and build on each other.  But do these connections really happen randomly, or is it because our minds are focused on an idea that we are able to see things with different eyes?

Here’s a perfect example.  Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and risk taking.  As a writing teacher I want to foster opportunities in my classroom for students to take risks without fear of failure.  Ideally I’d like students to leave my classroom unafraid to do something different, because they will know that it leads to greater learning.  Then, thanks to Brian, I came across this article: “Teaching Risk Taking in the College Classroom.” In it author E. Shelley Reid identifies the inherent contradictions present in education that prevent students from taking risks.   According to Reid, students today, “are conservative learners: they worry about grades and want to “play it safe,” they don’t take time to imagine alternatives, or they have low skill or confidence levels that reduce their abilities to try new things. And sometimes my own teaching or grading practices undermine my invitations to take the intellectual risks that are crucial to student learning” (Reid, 2010).  However, instead of going on to bemoan this fact, Reid provides several strategies that teachers can use in order to develop risk taking among students.   While I found many of the suggestions useful, the one that stands out for me is giving credit to students who are willing to take risks, even if the final product is imperfect.   This was a forehead smacking moment.  How perfectly simple and effective, reward the risk takers!

A few days later this post, 10 Ways to Help Students Ask Better Questions was retweeted.    In it teacher John T. Spencer describes the practices he has adopted to help his students become critical thinkers and risk takers. “Question everything has become a mantra in our class and it extends all the way to me,” he explains, providing the important caveat that the questions must always be respectful.    Again, there were many ideas that I can implement into my classroom, but the most important thing I walked away with was the affirmation that if I want my students to learn these skills, they need to practice them.  This is a challenge as I often fall back into previously established habits and routines,  and I am working with students who are reluctant to be wrong.  Still, these ideas, along with the thought of how I can “flip” my classroom have really got my brain bubbling.

At this point I’m not sure what these ideas will look like in practice in my classroom, but one thing I do know.  If I really want to prepare my students for the future I need to help them move away from the need for perfection because it limits their learning and growth.  I also know that initially it will be difficult for my students to let go of their dependency on the right answer, the clean copy and the perfect score, but the benefits of making this shift will be enormous.

    April 10, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    I was struck by your comment: “I am working with students who are reluctant to be wrong” (O’Connor, 2011). I, too, find that students are hesitant to take risks because they worry that they will lose points on an assignment rather than be rewarded for ingenuity. I sometimes have trouble developing rubrics for this very reason—a good rubric concisely outlines expectations and awards point values. A better rubric might not be so specific—providing students more opportunities to take risks without the fear of losing points.

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