Alistair McConville walked into the school sports hall to take his chemistry GCSE last year and, as he did so, he felt the familiar thrill of pre-exam excitement. But unlike the other students in the hall, this was the first time he had taken a test like this since 1991. These days, he spends most of his time teaching classes rather than attending them.
“It was a bit surreal,” says the 43-year-old director of innovation and learning at Bedales School in Hampshire. “It was nostalgic and in some ways it makes you realise that not much has changed … Well, nothing had changed other than some of my hair had fallen out in the intervening period.”
Mole calculations and the smelting process for aluminium were only part of what McConville struggled to get his head around last year. More important for him was the reminder of how difficult the learning process could be – and how important it is for students and teachers to feel they can take risks in the classroom.
“It definitely was helpful in terms of empathising with their struggles,” he says. “It’s about confidence and about making risk acceptable and desirable. You have to risk the chance of failing to find out where your limits are so you can push them.”
Many thousands of column inches have been devoted to the importance of taking risks in life. Titans of industry such as Steve Jobs or inventors such as Thomas Edison, we are told, only got where they did because they made mistakes and learned from them. As the saying goes, failure is a part of success.
This is also true in the classroom. A 2015 study of award-winning US teachers by Michigan State University found they all took creative risks in their work, drawing on their own interests and hobbies to help students learn. The subjects included a San Diego maths teacher who rapped during algebra lessons and an arts teacher in Iowa who used music to teach Franz Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis.
Recent research, reported by Tes, also found that UK teachers who took creative risks left the longest-lasting impression on pupils, particularly when they drew on their own passions in their lessons, brought in real-world examples and adapted their methods to suit their classes.
After becoming headteacher of Ashford School in Kent, Mike Buchanan created a culture of risk-taking among staff by encouraging them to learn a musical instrument. Some 50 of his colleagues got involved in the first year and, over the next five or so years, almost half took the opportunity to test themselves.
“I wanted to find a simple way to get them engaged in the process of learning,” he says. “It reminded them of how bloody difficult learning is, and that it isn’t a nice, smooth trajectory. And it reminded them of how resilient and hard-working you have to be to make any progress.”
Buchanan, now executive director of independent school group the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, says creating an environment in which staff and pupils felt they could take risks was key to turning Ashford School around. When he took the helm in 2005, the school was in the red and losing 10 per cent of its pupils annually. By the time he left in July this year, pupil numbers had risen from 350 to 1,000, finances were healthy, and results and staff engagement had improved.
Yet, despite the many upsides of taking creative risks in the classroom, it can be difficult for teachers to carve out the time and space to do so in today’s school system.
Backbreaking workloads and long hours mean many teachers struggle to keep up with the job as it is, let alone find the time to come up with new ways to grab students’ attention. The recruitment and retention crisis, meanwhile, means that many teachers today are young and relatively inexperienced, so don’t have the confidence to go off-piste.
Constant pressure to produce results compounds the problem. A damning report from the NAHT headteachers’ union last month concluded that government accountability measures, such as Ofsted inspections and league tables, “are acting as a break to overall improvement and are, on balance, doing more harm than good”.
Some academy chains actively encourage teachers to use pre-planned lessons and standardised teaching methods to improve efficiency and ensure teachers can sub for colleagues at a moment’s notice. Schools are even opting for “scripted lessons”, which in their most extreme iteration involve delivering classes written by someone else. While advocates of this approach argue that it can raise standards and liberate teachers from the drudgery of lesson planning, it certainly doesn’t leave much room for innovation.
“Every school culture has its orthodoxies. Teachers frequently get scolded and scorned for trying something new,” says Tom Bennett, founder of ResearchED, which aims to make teachers more research literate and promote collaboration.
“Most teachers barely have a minute to catch a breath. We shouldn’t be expected to drive innovation all by ourselves, but [instead] as a community, through better teacher training, more thoughtful leadership and a renewed focus as a profession to develop a professional body of knowledge.”
When teachers take risks, though, it can also require risk-taking from their students, which can sometimes cause friction in the classroom. The growth of social media and increased competition for jobs are factors behind pupils seemingly becoming more scared of making a fool of themselves in public than in decades past. One study of 41,000 students in the US, Canada and the UK found respondents in 2016 rated the social pressure to be “perfect” a third higher than those surveyed in 1989.
This can be particularly acute for teenage girls who, research by the University of Sweden has found, start to lose their appetite for risk-taking from the tender age of 10. Claire Narayanan, assistant headteacher at Levenshulme High School for Girls in Manchester, says her English students initially resisted when she tried out a new technique called “reciprocal reading” in a bid to make them less passive in class and force them to solve problems on their own.
“Girls often associate mistakes with failure,” she says. “It felt quite scary to trial it, as the pupils were resistant at first and wanted to go back to their comfort zone, so it brought some tension to the classroom. I kept going back to the important reasons behind it and kept experimenting with it, as I believed in the research around it. It ended up working brilliantly with my low-ability and mid-ability classes, making them much more independent and confident readers.”
Teachers say it can also be harder to try new, riskier learning techniques when working with children from difficult backgrounds, and particularly those for whom English is a second language.
“The upsides [of taking risks] are pupils being able to recognise that a teacher is investing in them or trusting them by planning, organising or doing something different,” says one secondary head in a deprived area of London, who asked not to be named. “The downside is that, in low-income communities like those I work in, routine, structure and consistency is what many pupils need to feel safe in school, in contrast to their home environment.”
Say yes to failure
For headteachers, the key to encouraging staff to feel able to take risks in the classroom can be to let them see you fail.
“As teachers, we should practise what we preach. We, too, should grapple with new teaching or leadership practices and learn from our mistakes,” says Matt Bromley, an education consultant with 20 years of experience in teaching and leadership.
“I’ve taken risks as a teacher in the classroom and as a headteacher; some of those risks have paid off, others have failed. But I’ve learned as much from my mistakes as I have from my successes. Failure is a great teacher, after all.”
One such “debacle” was his early introduction of now-debunked techniques, such as “learning to learn” lessons, and asking pupils to fill out VAK (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic) surveys – a mistake that Bromley says taught him “you shouldn’t jump on every passing pedagogical bandwagon without questioning the research base”. But other moves proved more effective, including dropping graded lesson observations and divorcing them from performance management, scrapping whole-school Inset in favour of peer-to-peer support, and giving staff more individualised CPD.
“The accountability system is the biggest hindrance stopping teachers and school leaders from taking risks and trying something new,” he says. “Schools need to encourage risk-taking by ensuring staff have a safe space in which to experiment.
“Observations must not be hardwired to performance-management processes and people must be allowed to fail if they can demonstrate why they failed and what they’ve learned.”
At West Rise Junior School in East Sussex, head Mike Fairclough teaches lessons that would make most health and safety officers squirm, including making campfires and clay pigeon shooting. But he says the riskiest time of his week is Friday-morning assemblies, when he tries to calculate attendance levels in his head in front of the whole school.
“The children and staff all know that I struggle with mental arithmetic,” he adds. “I ask the children for their calculations and also work out my own, live on stage. I frequently come up with the wrong answer, which makes me feel slightly awkward, but I embrace this in order to show that part of learning is making mistakes.”
Stand-up for confidence
Sometimes, creating a fertile environment for risk-taking can also be about not taking life too seriously.
Suzie Longstaff came to this conclusion six years ago when she was head of sixth form at girls’ school Putney High. After watching some of her Year 12s lose a debate to a group of boys, despite being better prepared, she decided the best way to teach them to feel more confident about public speaking and thinking on their feet was to bring in stand-up comedians to teach several workshops.
Being new to the role, she worried the idea “could have been seen as gimmicky”. But despite her misgivings about telling jokes to sixth-formers – and the concerns of her shyer pupils – the trial sessions proved a great hit and have continued ever since.
Now headteacher, Longstaff says she and her staff have tried to incorporate elements of the workshops into other lessons and are even bringing in an “orator in residence” this term.
“It’s all about having a light-hearted approach to what is an important life skill,” she says of risk-taking. “The girls have become more confident to ask questions and there is now a culture of engaging with teachers.”
Caroline Henshaw is a reporter for Tes. She tweets @CazTes