IB learners strive to be: • Courage to prepare for a final examination with problems you do not know in advance. • Courage to learn new concepts and skills. (Professor Loui might have added, “Courage to go through life missing an “s” from your last name,” but you get the idea.)
Risk-Taking is Risky Looked at this way, the value of risk-taking as a driver of learning seems obvious. But being a risk-taker doesn’t come naturally to most kids, at least not in the classroom. The problem with risk-taking is that it can be... well, risky. The default position for kids (and adults too, it must be said) is to stay in their comfort zone. That notion of “comfort zone” is something of a cliché today, a staple of sitcom writing and daytime talk shows. But that wasn’t the case back in my sports journalism days, when athletes from gymnasts to football players would talk about breaking out of their comfort zones as the only way to reach “the next level” (alas, now another cliché). The same concept applies to education, where researchers and theorists often contrast the “comfort zone” with the “learning zone.” Much of that thinking seems to be based on the ideas of Carol Dweck, an innovator who promotes a “growth mindset” (i.e. your effort determines your learning capability) over the “fixed mindset” (your intelligence defines your learning capability). As one educator put it, the fixed mindset says, “I’ll stay in my comfort zone and protect my dignity,” whereas the growth mindset understands that “If I don’t try, I’ll automatically fail. Where’s the dignity in that?” Taking the comfort zone concept back to its sports roots, Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s greatest player, may have put it best: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Moving from the comfort zone to the learning zone involves risk-taking. By definition, it means risking your comfort. It’s obviously worth the risk, but that doesn’t always make it easy for students to do it. That’s where teachers come in. “Learning, like all other creative acts, will flourish in an atmosphere in which the learner is willing to take risks,” writes Marilla Svinicki, an educational psychologist at the University of Texas, “and it is the task of the instructor to create such an atmosphere for learning.” In other words, it’s part of a teacher’s job to develop risk-taking habits in students. That squares with what we postulated earlier; covering the material has to be complemented with providing the students an opportunity to learn it. So a teacher must not only promote risktaking, but also eliminate obstacles that discourage risk-taking. Professor Svinicki and others describe some ways that teachers do that, which might be synthesized as follows: • Give students a chance to take risks. Teachers shouldn’t do all the talking and presenting. Hand the ball off to the kids sometimes and let them run with it. • Make sure mistakes are painless. Dr. House’s critical invective may work during diagnostic differentials, but he’s not a role model for encouraging risk-taking in the classroom. Which is not to say mistakes can be shrugged off; they just shouldn’t be confused with failure. “Mistakes teach us how to mold things for future success,” says ASF Director of Academic Affairs Juan de Jesús Breene. • Separate learning and grading. This is a way to deal with the central contradiction teachers face: They want to encourage learning from mistakes, but they must punish wrong answers in evaluations. • Be a model for risk-taking. “One way to build student confidence is to be willing to take risks yourself,” Professor Svinicki advises teachers. • Allow students to get lost and find their way again. Wrong turns can be instructive. And struggling your way out of a quagmire can teach you more than following an expert’s instructions. • Exude organization and competence: Professor Svinicki found the apt metaphor: “Personally, I never worry about flying unless the pilot starts sounding nervous. The same seems true in classroom learning.” As the three or four readers who have stayed with me may have gathered, I’m a fan of the risk-taker trait. Even more than the other nine IB Learner Profile characteristics, it applies to adults and kids, inside and outside the classroom, in life, love and business. And like all the traits, it marks the difference between an admirable and a boring person. 39
Inquirers They develop their natural curiosity. They acquire the skills necessary to conduct inquiry and research and show independence in learning. They actively enjoy learning and this love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives. Knowledgeable They explore concepts, ideas and issues that have local and global significance. In so doing, they acquire in-depth knowledge and develop understanding across a broad and balanced range of disciplines. Thinkers They exercise initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognize and approach complex problems, and make reasoned, ethical decisions. Communicators They understand and express ideas and information confidently and creatively in more than one language and in a variety of modes of communication. They work effectively and willingly in collaboration with others. Principled They act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness, justice and respect for the dignity of the individual, groups and communities. They take responsibility for their own actions and the consequences that accompany them. Open-minded They understand and appreciate their own cultures and personal histories, and are open to the perspectives, values and traditions of other individuals and communities. They are accustomed to seeking and evaluating a range of points of view, and are willing to grow from the experience. Caring They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others. They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment. Risk-takers They approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs. Balanced They understand the importance of intellectual, physical and emotional balance to achieve personal well-being for themselves and others. Reflective They give thoughtful consideration to their own learning and experience. They are able to assess and understand their strengths and limitations in order to support their learning and personal development.
Focus Spring 2011: The Green Issue