Risk; Resilience; Reward!

Take a second before you read on: close your eyes and imagine what you would do if you knew you could not fail?

I firmly believe that risk underpins all success; measured risks should be viewed as investments, which are highly likely to generate a significant learning return.  Have you noticed that on TV game shows/competitions, how frequently we hear the host exclaim “it’s a risk, will it pay off?’ and later to the winner ‘you took a risk and it paid off, this time’.  Both of which are followed by further questioning to discover why.  Isn’t this exactly what we want for our learners; for them to take a risk, which they can justify and great learning can follow.  After a similar chain of events in the Great British Bake Off’s technical challenge last week, Mary Berry retorted:  “I have never thought of doing that; it worked; I’m going to give it a go”.  In a nutshell: a measured risk led to success, reward and learning beyond the individual.

So, why don’t we take more risks when a possible outcome is great success?  Can you recall avoiding taking action, for example not applying for a job or answering a question publicly because your self-efficacy was low due to the probability of non-success?  We are more likely to label this outcome as FAILURE.  What does that conjure up in your mind and how does that feel?  Uncomfortable?  This feeling is as a result of an innate, adaptive biological response, which is governed by brain regions and neurochemicals.  This physiological response is designed to protect us and keep us safe.  Well, at least for the short term, maybe, but long term it is likely to be limiting and even damaging.  Consider: where do the safe options lead us and importantly how would they restrict our learners?  Certainly amongst the list would be low expectations, low aspirations, poor retention and underachievement.  We need to take more risks in our teaching and develop the resilience of our learners to empower them to take risks for success.


A measured risk may read as an oxymoron but there is clearly a bipolar scale: starting at zero – only taking action, which is certain to result in safety, through to 10 – thoughtless behaviour with no idea of the result.  So, I would assert that the measured risk is the grey area in between.  I often repeat Geoff Petty’s phrase ‘common practice is often not best practice’.  We are very skilled at what we do, so it usually yields the results that we are pleased with.  This does translate to the highest possible outcomes!  Playing it safe may feel comfortable; we know what to expect, we have most of the questions anticipated, the answers prepared, with some entertaining anecdotes (that make us smile), ensconced with a plethora of high quality resources, to boot!

So, let’s dip our toes into the risky zone.  The bad news is that for a short while it may not elicit the outcome that you usually get, let alone immediate success and may even go completely pear-shaped when things happen which you hadn’t anticipated.   Naturally, this may leave us feeling vulnerable and frustrated, even more so during an observation or a learning walk, we may even feel shame.  Please stick with me on this; don’t throw the towel in (or your trowel)!  The good news is that with practice, you will quickly become skilled with this new teaching strategy.

This year’s hot learning strategies are a great place to start because there is an array of research that provides strong evidence that it will be successful with an above average effect size.  In other words, it is likely to yield results, which outperform other strategies.  

More good news:  with the support you are entitled to access, you can gain personalised guidance and become skilled even faster.  This support includes: ‘learning hubs’, coaching, peer observations, developmental observations, ‘open surgeries’, online forums and more!  

I would encourage you to go on your own learning walks too!  Next time you have non-contact time, why not take a wander around and see how other people are teaching and learning.  You will be amazed what you can learn, in such a short time, and how empowering it can be. The best news is that your risks will be supported and I can assure you that you will not be lambasted if things do not go to plan. Indeed, your measured risk-taking will be celebrated!  Furthermore, it would be great if you could share what you are trialling via Twitter @DerbyCollegeLearning, or keep a blog, or if you prefer email me directly.  

So, in short: take measured risks! New strategies based on scientific research will produce greater success than ever before and it is safe!  Your risk-taking will generate success that will be celebrated.  

I promise that we will offer you support all the way.  


Children’s brains continue to develop areas required for emotional intelligence until they are approximately 20!  Now, can you recall a time when you didn’t answer the question because you were afraid that you may be wrong, which would lead to feelings of embarrassment, which is linked to shame?  

Remember how uncomfortable you felt and the relief that followed when someone else answered it.  Or perhaps you were the person who answered. if so, remember the look of relief on the other people’s faces, as their averted eyed suddenly brightened and their confident, furious nodding began to indicate they concurred with the respondent.  We are emotionally intelligent adults, so you can imagine how exacerbated our students’ feelings become when they cannot rationalise in the same way or cope with a possible failure.  Yet we delight in them taking the risk of answering a question when they are unsure of the answer, especially when they know they may be wrong!  We know (and hopefully, so do our learners) that when they reveal a wrong answer, their misunderstanding can be explored and their learning can be accelerated, often as a result of further questioning.  We need them to empower our learners to take this risk for great success to be achieved.  

High expectation is a vital element of outstanding progress and achievement; yet again this involves huge risks. Imagine a learner applying for their dream job or place at a red brick university.  They will have been told how competitive it is to achieve success in their application and chosen profession.   So, isn’t it safer to set their sights lower?  Of course it is safer in the short term but in the long term the effects of this can be quite damaging; resulting in low aspiration, boredom, regret and shame.  

A plethora of rigorous scientific research demonstrates that these outcomes can lead to a range of vulnerabilities: mental health disorders, engaging in offending behaviour and even lower life expectancy.  Therefore, a key ingredient for success is taking time to develop our learners holistically, developing their emotional intelligence, particularly their resilience with dealing with failures.  This will empower our learners to stop avoiding stressful situations but to practise coping strategies, which over time will develop into habits for positive well-being.  

The neural connections in the brain, which control fear, reward and emotional regulation, will become established, allowing new messages to transmit.  This will result in emotional regulation; positive cognitions and resilient behaviours to be learnt and over time to become automatic responses to stressors.  (Southwick & Charney, 2012).  Ultimately, this will result in the capacity to modulate the stress response, reducing the uncomfortable feelings, discussed earlier.

Recent research that was presented to the British Educational Research Association demonstrated that there is a significant negative correlation between worry and exam performance.  Students who worry are at risk of performing badly in exams.  Prior attainment was controlled for and shown not to be a confounding variable.  The difference in performance between a worrier and a student with greater task-focused coping could be a difference of three grades!

So, go on, try something new with your learners tomorrow and give us feedback about how it goes.  

I look forward to hearing how it went. Please, do not fear if it does not go quite to plan because I have every faith that, given time, by taking risks and learning from the mistakes that you will hit upon something rather special, changing your learners’ perceptions of what taking a risk can mean when it achieves such knowledge and understanding.

“Persistant people begin their success where others end in failure.” Edward Eggleston


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