Let’s roll the dice and make teaching a risky business

We all want our students to take risks in the classroom – to answer questions and challenge opinions without fear of failure. But too often, as teachers, we’re afraid to take a punt ourselves – so, once in a while, throw that lesson plan to the wind, says Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts

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Are you a risk-taking teacher? For many of us, that label is problematic.

What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you hear it? A smoky late-night casino, with desperate punters making “just one more” desperate last roll of the dice? Young passengers in souped-up VW Golfs, not bothering with “uncomfortable” seatbelts? Or perhaps “tomb-stoning” teens, jumping off cliffs into the crashing surf below?

Discussion of risk-taking mainly elicits connotations of hazardous behaviour. After all, the dictionary definition of the verb “risk” is:

1. To endanger, imperil, jeopardise or lose something of value

And we don’t want to do any of that.

As teachers, we are surrounded by negative notions of risk. Our pupils are at risk of not making progress, of failing their exams, of being excluded. We have to monitor whether they’re at risk of neglect, abuse, radicalisation. Schools, of course, are at risk of falling below floor standards – or the ultimate sign of failure – going into special measures. No wonder then that teachers are risk-averse.

Yet, there is another way to see risk, and another definition for it:

2. Take a chance, gamble, gain something of value

Imagine a rugby team. Defensive, overly cautious, motivated by the fear of the other team scoring. The more this team focuses on damage-limitation, however, the more they leak points. The team have become predictable and are regularly taken apart by creative, offense-driven opponents who throw caution and rugby balls to the wind.

Like rugby teams, pupils also need the routine of drills. We need to spend a great deal of time working through predictable learning strategies. My own model is repetitively structured:

  • Memory platform
  • Teach new topic
  • Apply topic
  • Quick recap


But even within this evidence-based routine, there is the need for innovation and novelty, for throwing our usual lesson plan to the wind.

It’s my belief that, in alignment with tried-and-tested teaching methods, there is a need for risk-taking in the classroom.

Firstly, as teachers, we need to encourage pupils to take risks in lessons. Strategies that embolden pupils to take a punt include:

Removing choice when differentiating work

How can you feasibly expect pupils to chance their arm with a more complex task when you give them an alternative easy option?

Asking pupils’ opinions on how long tasks should take

This isn’t about promoting the pupil to the level of expert. Instead, pupils are nudged into thinking carefully about the process of learning and how long it should take. Teachers often rely on arbitrary units of time; I find that pupils create better work quicker when asked about how long an activity should take.

Giving extra thinking or planning time

Getting them to answer complex questions or attempt something new and challenging will often only happen if they’re given an opportunity to make mistakes and reflect.

Sometimes focusing on the process, not the product

For example, in maths, are you setting a fiendish problem as an opportunity to try out different mathematical approaches or are you obsessed with getting the right answer? Naturally, pupils will need to get it right eventually, but they will be more likely to take risks in the initial stages if they feel that the process is the first priority.

Using wrong answers or near-misses to difficult questions or tasks as learning opportunities

Ensure you thank pupils for not being put off by the complexity. Do you want an environment where pupils are afraid to have a go due to lack of recognition?

Avoiding discussing target grades or levels

Talk of these things, almost without exception, will inhibit, not liberate pupils.

And a really big influence on pupils’ attitude towards risk is:

Model risk-taking

Students can see when you’re going out on a limb. You have years of experience and the benefit of superior subject knowledge. If you won’t throw off the shackles every once in a while, then how can you expect them to do so?

Teachers who would like to take a chance are often put off because they associate risk-taking with the wholesale abandonment of traditional teaching methods.

As a trainee English teacher, I was horrified to witness one such lesson. Expecting to see a lesson on HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, I was confronted by a scene more reminiscent of a hippy jamboree. The desks had been pushed to the sides – never a good sign – and the pupils were sprawled on beanbags in a worryingly loose circle. Jeff Wayne’s prog-rock musical version of the novel was blaring out of the tinny speakers. The pupils, trying to hide their bemusement and stifle guffaws, were writing down the emotions they felt on blurry photocopies of the album’s artwork. This lasted an hour.

But, no, pushing back the tables is not required. Without resorting to bonkers activities, here are some things you can do to push you into taking a few more risks in your teaching so your pupils can, too:

Adapt or stop an activity that isn’t working

Pulling the plug is a brave, necessary act during some lessons. Sometimes the only way is to say, “This isn’t working – we’re going to do something different.”

Use personal anecdotes

This has two immediate benefits: it makes your explanations more memorable and it makes you seem like a human being.

Display your passion for your subject

Read aloud with gusto. It might sound obvious, but many teachers curb their enthusiasm without realising it. A passion for knowledge is contagious.

Set yourself difficult challenges in the classroom

Answer tricky questions live against the clock. You’ll impress them, even when you make mistakes. They’ll see the mind of an expert working hard, outside of their comfort zone, but still producing quality work. They’ll be more inclined to try it, too.

Get pupils to test your knowledge or your memory

Put yourself on the spot. Show off your exceptional ability to recall knowledge about your subject. At this point, you’ll be able to talk about the methods you use to retain and recall information. These feats of memory and metacognition will inspire your pupils to follow suit.

Allow pupils the opportunity to ask questions anonymously

A blank Post-it note can be filled in by students without them fearing looking dim in front of their peers. Make it clear that there are no daft questions in this context. They will relax and be more willing to ask more questions when they see that lots of other pupils share their concerns or misconceptions.

And most important of all:

Admit mistakes and use them as points of discussion

Preferably, this won’t involve any Oprah-style tearful confessions about your shameful inadequacies as a human being. My explanations, though, and my pupils’ response to them, have improved significantly ever since I first uttered the phrases “I explained that really badly, let me try again” and “That wasn’t a very good question, I’m going to rephrase it”. I used to think that this would encourage pupils to see me as a fraud, but, in fact, the opposite has happened. This strategy of honesty really is a risk worth taking.

Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the South West of England

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