Encouraging Risk Taking in the Classroom

Teaching is a risk-taking activity. Spending your career shaping the next generation is not a safe proposition. Some students will fail, some will break your heart, and some will be so good you wish they could stay in your class forever. But as is often the case, the biggest risks come with the greatest rewards. Encouraging risk taking in the classroom can seem counter-intuitive – after all, the stakes are so high, and so often default to the tried-and-true over exploring new methods, technologies, and activities. 

Two of the most desired traits for students are experimentation and the perseverance to try again after failure. Risk taking in the classroom doesn’t have to include gigantic shifts in the curriculum. There are ways to help make sure your practice – and your students’ learning – is full of “micro-risks.”

Praise Effort, Not Outcome

When a student only receives recognition when they get something right, they are conditioned to seek success. In the human mind, that often means the person only sticks to things they know to be successful, even though we know success is more often the product of multiple failures and having the necessary grit to keep trying. This culture of perseverance is valuable in both the classroom and the boardroom.

To help stem the tide, resolve to using the following phrases (or similar) more often: good effort, nice try, or thanks for working through it. Does a struggling reader become frustrated at going through a passage more slowly than everyone else? Praise the effort. Did a student make a valiant attempt at answering a test question even though it’s clear they knew they wouldn’t get it right? Praise the effort. You can even keep a running tally on the board to celebrate the process, not the result.

The Risk-Taker’s Gradebook

There are two things you can do to make your gradebook better represent the mindset you want your students to adopt: open-ended assignments and retakes. Both better reflect the world of work in which high-performing workplaces (and school districts) discourage micromanagement and desire perseverance.

It’s impossible not to succeed on an open-ended assignment – because they are processes, not results. When you offer multiple project formats or allow proposals for alternatives, as well as a wide range of topics from which to choose, the possibilities are so endless that standardization goes out the window! This helps students select projects and tasks they want to learn about, not ones in which they know they will succeed.

When an activity must have an end, like an assessment, consider allowing retakes. How many is up to you and your pacing guide. Suddenly, you will see less blank spaces on assignments and tests because students will know that even their most outlandish ideas can be fixed later.

Don’t Be Afraid to Own Your Mistakes

Some teachers believe that a certain barrier should exist between themselves and their students and that owning a mistake they might make in the classroom could chip away at that barrier. When we forget to do something or make a mistake that affects other adults in our lives, we tend to acknowledge it. So why don’t we do the same in front of our most important coworkers? When you make a mistake in your classroom, point it out, apologize if needed, and describe how you will change the situation.

Risk-taking behavior is just that – risky. But if we want our students to explore and create just as every generation before them has, they need to learn that behavior from the people they look up to. Being a good model for growth is a way to assure you will be one of those people.


Scott Sterling is an education commentator and journalist. He spent 5 years teaching English in Title I middle and high schools in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is an advocate for equity and gifted education.

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