Tell “Risky” Stories

shifting-conversations-logoI got an email recently from a superintendent in a district where I’ve had the good fortune of visiting a number of times. She writes:

“It is interesting to me that teachers really believe they can’t take risks. How do we help them believe they can and must???”

As with many, many things education, I think the first step is to define what we mean by “risk.” I can’t remember where I heard Gary Stager say it or write it, but he observed once that much of what we define as “taking a risk” in the classroom really isn’t. I agree.

Is it really a risk to give kids more agency over their own learning and, in the process, learn how to learn? Is it really a risk to allow them to make something that represents their learning and then present it to a real audience? Is it really a risk to let students grapple with questions that don’t have one answer, or questions that the teacher can’t necessarily answer? Is it really a risk to trust kids to use technologies well in the pursuit of learning something or making something that they truly care about?

Or since more and more that stuff is what the world demands from us all now, is it more of a risk NOT to do those things in the classroom? That’s hard for traditional educators to hear, that traditional approaches to schooling are actually putting our kids’ futures at risk. (Look no further than our shockingly absent media literacy skills played out in the recent US election for Exhibit A.) But I think it’s becoming more and more apparent that stifling kids’ creativity, curiosity, and general desire to learn is going to have dire consequences in what author Joi Ito is calling an age of “Whiplash,” one that’s augurs an even “faster future.”

The big shifts that already have and currently are occurring are a meta conversation that should be ongoing among teachers, parents, and all members of the school community. “Risk” will not be redefined without a deep knowledge and understanding of the modern contexts that drive our work today. In other words, educators and parents both have to first have the capacity to redefine risk, and that’s something that may take years of work to effect.

riskdeleteBut if you can get there, the question then becomes how to shrink the sheer size of the potential shift into manageable chunks. I know that in this superintendent’s district, some teachers are successfully taking what most would see are “risks” in both big and small ways. They’re doing inquiry projects, having students use technology to make and publish online, and having their students interact with other classrooms and/or with their local communities. But I’m betting that like in most schools I go to, these “risky” practices are not very transparent. When I visit schools, I’m almost always surprised how few teachers really have any clue really about what regular practice looks like a few doors down, not to mention innovative practice from the other side of the district.

If we want really want change and innovation, the stuff that’s currently defined as “risky,” we have to tell that new story to both teachers and community in ways that clarify what that risks really are and how we’re navigating them. We need to find as many ways as we can for everyone to see “risk” in the flesh, and realize that a) it’s actually not that risky, and b) it’s what’s required for great, modern learning to happen today.

The main characters in those stories are no doubt teachers and students. And any new narrative has be told with video and pictures, not just text. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been urging districts to invest in professional digital storytelling when communicating with constituents across their communities. (Dig around in the work that CCSD59 in Arlington Heights, IL is doing if you want to get a sense of what that looks like.) You can’t change the narrative if you don’t make “different” come to life.

That all said, my sense is that the biggest risk of all really has less to do with practice and more to do with a sense of self. Modern, progressive change in school pushes against much of what we traditionally do, and against the long held scripts that we have for ourselves as teachers and educators. Teachers teach discrete buckets of stuff to kids in an orderly, planned, easily assessable way that ultimately shows up on the report card or the test score. No question, we’re also expected to care deeply for our students and help them become good humans. But we don’t have tests or scores for “good human-ness.” In the end, it’s about content mastery, and anything that puts that at risk is easily labeled “risky” regardless of its value for developing learners in modern contexts.

If we don’t change that narrative, and if we don’t market a new, “risky that’s not risky at all” narrative widely and effectively, we’ll never get to the point where as school cultures and as individual teachers we believe that change is imperative and that we can effect it.

So, take a risk. Tell a new story of learning and education in your school, one that’s based on your beliefs about how kids learn most powerfully and deeply, one that prepares them for the complex, fast changing world as it is and will become.

(Note: Bruce had some thoughts on this a few months back as well.)

(Image credit: Vincentiu Solomon)

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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