How Academic Risk-Taking Dies in the Classroom

We’re born risk-takers. So when do we stop?

Picture a baby. A fresh one. Straight out of the womb. It’s probably making a bunch of noise. It’s probably gross looking (let’s be honest: this whole “cute newborn” thing is a myth). Despite the grossness of this baby, it came into the world wired with a certain skill set.

On a résumé, this baby would probably list skills like:

– Defecation

– Crying

– Nonsensical noise making


– Breathing

– Sleeping

– Eating

That’s essentially it. In other words, this child has zero employable skills (Psssh … millennials these days …). But there’s another major ability this child has in excess: risk-taking.

We are born risk takers. We will do just about anything as babies, no matter what the outcome of the risk. Some of these risks are idiotic. Others are critical. Think of one of the most basic functions: walking.

Picture Baby A about to take his first steps. His parents are probably staring at him, rooting, clapping, smiling, videotaping. Now, this move will not bode well for Baby A, who will most likely crash to the ground in an uncoordinated thump. But Baby A don’t care. Baby A is a risk taker. And as the much-anticipated fall happens, the parents no doubt scream and cheer rather than chastising their tot for failing.

What does Baby A do after this failure? Try again. And again. And again (at least until his parents can get that perfect Facebook-worthy video posted). Baby A will do this until he can walk. And voilà! We have learning. Walking is not the most employable skill, but we have progress, people.

This natural risk-taking is critical to development. And yet, at a certain point, we stop taking risks that help us grow. But we don’t stop taking risks because of physical danger (I once saw a kid kick himself in the forehead just to see if he could, so I can tell you physical danger is not an issue for today’s youth). We ultimately stop taking risks—positive risks that lead us forward—because of social danger. And so a critical question educators must ask themselves becomes: Are we creating a culture of academic risk-taking in our classrooms?

Take the common risk of answering a question in class. Imagine the growth potential if 100 percent of our students attempted to answer 100 percent of the questions we asked 100 percent of the time. But they don’t—at least not at the secondary level. There’s no physical danger in raising your hand in class, only social danger.

Many early elementary classrooms are teeming with kids who still own that innate risk taking. When my wife asks her second graders a question, I see dozens of hands shoot up, vying for a chance to answer a question. Kids are elbowing one another for space. Grunting increases.

A high school teacher asks a question and it’s a different story. Eye contact drops, faces contort in a pseudo “look-like-I’m-thinking” expression, and silence stalks the room. Maybe one brave soul will flick a subtle wrist with a half-inch raise of the hand, hoping he or she isn’t actually called on. We have witnessed a death in the type of risk-taking we want our young learners to practice. But such academic risk-taking didn’t die overnight.

Students lose this academic risk taking for many reasons. But one of the main reasons they lose it is because we create a culture of social danger in our classrooms. Here’s how:

1. We are more concerned with acknowledging the product than acknowledging the process.

With our hand-raising example it looks like this:

Teacher asks young child a question: “What’s the solution to the equation 6 divided by 2 equals …?”

Young child feverishly elbows out competition, certain of success.

Teacher: “Yes, Taylor?”

Taylor: “12!”

Teacher: “Nope. Sorry, Taylor. Who has a better answer? Marcus?”

Marcus: “3.”

Teacher: “YES MARCUS! Great job!” Maybe high-fives commence, anthems start playing, candy and Webkins get tossed to Marcus, celebrating his brilliance. Maybe not. Regardless, the teacher has lavished praise on the product of learning (right answer) over the process of learning (attempt at solving). A message has been given, however subtle: Right answers get rewards. The subtext is: If you don’t have the right answer, don’t try.

We know teachers don’t intend to send this message, but everything speaks. And putting product over process once doesn’t kill academic risk-taking. But imagine if this message is given implicitly over and over.

Whose papers are hanging on the walls? The A papers. Not the papers that have shown the greatest growth from draft one to the final draft. Who gets the shout-outs in the newspapers and at ceremonies? The kids with the 4.0s. Not the kids who have worked their tails off to make up for those freshmen 1.0 mistakes.

Are products important? Yes. We still need to ensure that our students are competent and not just confident. But we must consider how our over-focus on product often destroys the very process needed to develop the product itself.

Over the next couple weeks, let’s engage in a conversation about how to help our learners—all learners, from kindergarten through their careers—revitalize that child-like risk-taking that created a boom of development.

Next week, we’ll share ideas on how to quickly, easily and consistently foster safe academic risks. Until then, post your thoughts: How do you foster a culture of academic risk-taking?


Chase Mielke is a learning junk ie who happens to have a love affair with teaching. A book addict by night and a teacher and instructional coach by day, he fantasizes about old libraries and fresh Expo Markers. His obsessions with psychology, well-being and cognition often live on his blog,