An Exploration of Risk

In my current role as a personalized learning collaborator, I have been a part of numerous conversations with educators about personalized learning. From those conversations, I have observed a great deal about the creative process and about how different that process is for each educator as they design a new lesson, unit, or procedure.

For example, in my role hosting the Westside Personalized podcast, I will oftentimes close out the pod by asking the guest to offer some advice to those starting out with personalization. Given that opportunity, the guests usually comment one of two ways. Some advocate for starting small, taking calculated risks, and growing their personalized practices over time. Others passionately urge educators to jump in, to try more than they may even be comfortable with at first, noting that there is a certain energy to this trial by fire approach.

Now, over time, as these contrasting responses continued to show up, I found myself increasingly intrigued by the idea of evaluating, or at least further exploring, the concept of risk. Initially, that intrigue led me to try and tease out some elusive commonality that might unify (what I felt were) these otherwise conflicting approaches to risk. I was searching for a moral or a lesson about it; something beyond just, Risk looks like different things to different people, which sounds nice but just isn’t true. For some people, taking a risk is aiming for your ideal and either attaining it or, if not, finding yourself amongst the proverbial stars. For others, even if the ideal is presented to them, they will venture only a certain distance from the norm, from what they know and are able to control. *Note: Just to be clear, that is what I’m using as my measurement here to differentiate big risks from more modest risks, deviation from the norm.

After four days of exploring my thoughts, writing and rewriting this blog, I feel that the best way to be concise with conveying my reflections is to bullet out those insights…

  • All Risks Produce a Beneficial Change: When educators set out to revamp a learning experience in a way that deviates from what they have always done, they consistently select a lesson, unit, or procedure that they know can be better. In these instances, the teacher also tends to have at least an inclination as to what it would look like to address the issue. So the formula is simple, effort plus intentionality equals a positive and significant step in the evolution of the individual’s instructional practices. Fact. QED.
  • All Risks Alter Perspective from Lessons Learned: Regardless of the size of the risk, there will be pitfalls and shortcomings that should drive the reflective practitioner to revise the practice and make improvements in the future. This potential for failing forward sets the stage for beneficial changes that turn the immediate negative into a long-term positive.

Okay…so what’s the point of this blog post? Risks are good? Cool. Got it Andrew. This isn’t a novel idea.

True. But it’s important to first acknowledge the value of any and all risks, that should not be diminished. That said, if dramatic change is the ultimate goal, how do we think about risk in a way that encourages others to risk…more…

  • Big Risk-Takers Are Made, Not Born, That Way: Perhaps it’s not about people being, by nature, a big risk-taker or more calculated with their risks. It’s possible that big risk-takers long ago took much smaller risks, and their willingness to try new things was cultivated over a longer period of time through a wealth of experiences. A subtopic of this conversation worth considering is the role that work ethic and follow-through have on limiting the realization of a risk undertaken.
  • Quantifying Risk Is a Matter of Perspective: I know I joked about the idea of risk meaning different things to different people wasn’t a novel idea. My contention here is not to look at the individual’s perspective on the size of the risk itself but to instead focus on their attitude about the venture and its potential outcome. To undertake great things is to hold an optimism, a hope in your heart that despite the odds and the potential negative outcomes, the struggle to bring your ideals into reality is not only possible, it’s essential. It’s energizing. What you are willing to risk says a great deal about your outlook on life.
  • Culture Has a Significant Influence on Risk: If I feel supported in a risk, I am more willing to attempt it because I’m not as afraid of failure. Additionally, in a risk-friendly culture, individuals are more likely to find others who are willing to either support them in their risk and/or take on the same venture with the individual, easing the burden and responsibility of having to take that risk alone. These reflections are simple enough but worth noting here.
  • Be Transparent with Others About the Risks You Are Taking: Trying something new? Take time in class to explain your rationale and outline your plan with your learners. When the goals and expectations of any new practice are clear, students will inevitably pick up the slack in any facets lacking complete clarity or execution typical of a first attempt. In the same way, communicating your ideas with trusted colleagues and administrators is not a bad idea for receiving input before the undertaking and feedback afterward.

So, to sum it all up – Don’t be quick to overvalue larger risks. All risks are worth the effort as they produce immediate benefits along with helpful insights for the future. Develop a culture of risk-taking in your school and/or classroom, which requires you to be explicit in your communication with others about the risk(s) you intend to take. That culture, once established will make risk-taking a routine that will help both educators and learners alike develop a risk-history that allows the individual to evolve into someone who is willing to venture a significant distance from the norm. And finally – and above all – understand that the greatest factor in your ability to attempt and obtain great things is your outlook, which is a combination of your optimism, your capacity for hope, and the degree of your work ethic.


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