Lack of Risk Puts Nation at Risk

18 09 2009

This short piece is a working thought and stems from personal experiences and mental musings over the past few months. I welcome your comments…

Lately, I have been frustrated by the lack of risk taking I see in the U.S. education. I am not talking about financial risk or personal risk; there are plenty of examples there. I am talking about intellectual risk taking. Our educational system has done a wonderful job of preparing students for more school. School leads to school which leads to more school. However, what happens when you run out of school? What happens when you get to the end of that educational path and you need to join what many refer to as the real world?

Students today are obsessed with finding the right answer, finding truth—“Will this be on the test?” Yet, there are so few right answers to be had. Or, there are many right answers, many truths. We see students and parents driven by grades rather than learning. It is as if a grade of “A” really means you have learning something, that you have knowledge, that you will go somewhere. That maybe true if you stay in school. But what happens when your problems are not bound by limitations set by the artificial environment we call school? What if there were no right answers? What if there were many right answers? What if the process was more important than the destination? How do you assign a grade then? This is the world of intellectual risk taking.

Students don’t risk today because intellectual risk often leads to results that run counter to the culture of success in school. With the obsession for right answers, there is no room to risk. We see this daily in classrooms across the United States. Right answers can be measured by tests and boy do our students know how to take tests. We prepare them with test taking strategies in school. There is an entire industry founded on preparing students for tests. Many of these tests, by design, limit the amount of risk a student is willing to take. When a student skips a question, they just don’t get the point but when they answer it and get it wrong- BAMMM! We sock them with a penalty- no reason to take risks here.

So why is the nation at risk with the lack of intellectual risk taking? I believe we have developed a generation of individuals who are lost when presented with real problems. Ill-defined problems without bounds frustrate students today. And it is not just the students; I have also seen this same frustration in teachers.  When faced with problems that are outside their immediate experience or area of expertise, there is often a desire for step by step instructions rather than a search for creative solutions. We have some incredibly creative teachers in the U.S. Yet, they are stifled and many fail to take those intellectual risks, venturing “outside the box”, because they are largely judged by the ability of their students to answer questions that are “inside the box”. So there the focus stays.

In many ways, traditional schooling has become a Darwinian way of reducing the number of creative problem solvers in our society. We penalize those (students and teachers) who risk on the outside rather than rewarding them for their willingness to take intellectual risks that could lead to new understandings.

And what is the risk for our country? What great discoveries do you know where the discoverer followed step by step instructions that lead them to new understandings or the big breakthrough?

Intellectual risk is at the heart of almost all intellectual discoveries. Just look at Edison. He had over 10,000 failed attempts to get a light bulb to work before he had his first successful illumination. He was quoted as saying (and I paraphrase) “Failures? No, I know 10,000 ways a light bulb will not work.” Look at the work surrounding the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA. There were some big intellectual mistakes there as well. Watson and Crick’s first model would have never worked; it was missing almost all of the water and the phosphates were in the center. Linus Pauling, already a Nobel prize winner made a huge mistake by proposing to the entire scientific world a three strand model with the phosphates on the inside. Talk about a mistake, and he made it before the entire scientific community! Nobel Prize winners are not supposed to be this wrong! Right? But that is not the end of the story. While Watson and Crick eventually figured out this mystery of life and won their Nobel’s, Pauling became the “graceful loser” then went on to win a second unshared Nobel Prize for additional work in Chemistry! All of this, a result of intellectual curiosity requiring the freedom for intellectual risk taking.

We have big problems and big problems require big answers. These answers will not be found in the safe little box of standardized testing and behaviorist schooling. We need to create schools where teachers and students can safely fail, where they can take intellectual and creative risks that develop the skills and habits of mind necessary for solving big problems. We need to move away from the illusion of truth and facts and focus on the process of discovery and refinement of our current truths. Our students need to learn that there are few right answers and that most things that are worthwhile and will have great impact, take hard work, determination and a willingness to be wrong before you can be right. We need to celebrate the risk taker. We need to help our students become “un-schooled” so they will be free to truly learn and discover. We need to help them see how they could be the next Edison, Watson, Crick, Pauling, Franklin, Wilkins. Lessons in “playing it safe” will not get us there. We need a nation of intellectual risk-takers.




7 responses

18 09 2009

Intellectual risks are what my Humanities 7 class is all about. Today, for example, the students had to begin the design phase of their first two units, based on the 300+ questions they’ve written onto chart paper tacked up all over the room. They will group those questions into units unified by big, unanswerable questions. Each student will do her own project, and while her information must be accurate, the questions – and answers – are her own. We assess skills development, and we do not use letter grades. It took an incredible leap of faith for me to make the switch (about five years ago) from more traditional teaching to this degree of democracy and constructivism. But is more than worth every single heart palpitation I had.

Last year, my 7th grade Humanities class ran into a giant stumbling block in working on writing a script collaboratively. They worried that consensus was impossible dfor them to achieve, and begged me to take over and decide for them. (I didn’t. This year, when analyzing a teambuilding exercise they did on an overnight trip, they cited what they learned through that experience as a fundamentally important reason why they can work through frustration so effectively when solving problems.

So, it can be done. I’m no pioneer, I’m just doing what has worked well for others (notably Mark Springer and Carol Smith).

And for the record, this year’s kids cheered when they learned they wouldn’t have to take MCAS (or their state’s equivalent).

18 09 2009

Chris: Excellent post! I totally agree with what you are saying. I see it in the business world as well. Amazingly though some kids have the adaptive/cognitive skills to take those risks(even though they are in our current systems) whether it be outside of school or in the home and have manage to work around the system. The sad thing though, is that there are much more kids who can’t function outside of the school system. Few and far in between can we find educators in elementary and secondary education who stimulate and focus on the cognitive skills..those who encourage our kids to take intellectual risk. Thanks for the thought provoking exercise!!

19 09 2009
Jaime Caro

Great post, remembering everybody the need to move beyond the known paths, showing all of us the goal of an educator (not merely a teacher), pointing to the falseness of testing as the ultimate assessment. I am shure many share your idea and want to take intellectual risks. The environment in the enterprise is usually worse than in the school: people are rewarded for not making mistakes, rather than taking risks. Intellectual risk is a dangerous attitude. I have shared this article with coordinators and faculty at Alcaparros School. They remember you and Rhonda as a couple of warm and inspiring teachers of teachers.

21 09 2009
Norman Maynard

Chris – You are absolutely right – we do little to reward excellence (it’s expected) and a lot to damn failure. There are a lot of culprits in this, but don’t forget parents in the equation. I think kids are natural risk-takers, and when they can’t take them because we make it too safe (on the playground, for instance), they take them where they can (driving, drinking, sexing). All teachers know parents who will do anything to prevent their child from failure, and kids grow up relying on their parents ex machina. Teachers get blamed for student failure, schools get blamed, parents pull kids from schools because the child is bright, so any failure must be the fault of the school or program.
And what about sports? Who celebrates #2 in sports? No one: to come in second is to be a loser.
I know you were talking specifically about intellectual risk, but all these areas conspire in creating an environment in which “failure is not an option.”

22 09 2009
Larry Kahn


Thank you for your salient points. Reading your post reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson’s arguments about creativity. Today’s students learn how to fit into the mold to get the 3.9 or 4.0 GPA. In doing so they learn how not to take risks or be creative.

26 03 2010
The Daily Find: March 26, 2010 « NAIS Annual Conference 2010 Community

[…] Lack of Risk Puts Nation at Risk: This is a post I wrote several months ago but is in the same vein as the one above and connects nicely with the article referenced by Gordon. “Lately, I have been frustrated by the lack of risk taking I see in the U.S. education. I am not talking about financial risk or personal risk; there are plenty of examples there. I am talking about intellectual risk taking. Our educational system has done a wonderful job of preparing students for more school. School leads to school which leads to…”MORE […]

25 02 2011
Change, Risk and the Opportunity to Fail « Life in the Renaissance

[…] Lack of Risk Taking Puts Nation at Risk […]

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