A couple of weeks ago my friend Bryce Bunting argued that risk is essential for learning on his blog Musings from an Amateur. Bryce's point is well-taken. Risk often heightens learning because it demands greater focus from students. And it is true that schools often avoid risky moments and so limit student learning.
It is worth wondering why schools are risk-averse, avoiding moments where students are held up for public scrutiny. (Public scrutiny is a key part of risk in Bryce's formulation.) I think there are two reasons: first, risk entails the possibility of public failure, and second, most students lack the sort of relationship with peers and teachers that make risk and failure into ways to learn. In the absence of these relationships, failure leads to humiliation or to punishment.
As I was thinking about risk and failure, I came across this article at Tricycle.com. There, Bonnie Myotai Trace argues that:
In order to work with a teacher, there needs to be a student. We often skip over this: It’s easy to waste time going through the motions of entering the room for a face-to-face teaching, but to not really be a student—to just be someone who wants to debate, or to prove something. Often, a real spiritual meeting is not available even though the bows have been made. Yet once a student develops, it is inevitable that a teacher will appear in their life. They create each other.
This is an interesting notion--that students create their teachers by the level of preparation, focus, and practice they bring to the learning setting. A poorly prepared students creates a teacher who focuses on that poor preparation. A well-prepared student gives rise to a teacher who can guide and shape that student.
Of course the relationship works the other way as well--a prepared teacher can help create a prepared student. So what does this imply for the possibility of creating risk that results in learning? That teachers and students must both be practicing risk, and that that risk-learning must be done in public.
This is a rare thing in the classroom--faculty often take risks, but much more frequently in writing or among peers than before students or in the classroom. So how do people who care about student learning create a learning environment that favors risk? Is there anything to be learned from religious practice (the student-teacher relationship in Buddhism is the context of the quote above, and the rest of the article has plenty of suggestions about spiritual practice and learning)? From innovative corporations? (WL Gore and Associates, the namesake of the Gore School of Business, celebrates failure as a key component of innovation.)