Bryce Bunting, Derek Bitter, and I have been thinking together about the role of risk in learning. In this midst of thinking about risk, I came across Peter Bernstein's book Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.
Bernstein argues that risk has a history, one that is tied up with the mathematics and concepts of probability. Before the notion of probability, the future was either radically certain (you did what had always been done, you went to heaven if you were good or hell if you were bad) or radically uncertain (one day, unexpectedly, you died). Probability allowed people from the renaissance on to predict with some certainty the outcome of an action, and then to decide whether to pursue that action based on how much risk they were willing to take on.
When educators talk about the importance of risk in learning, they generally mean that by asking a student to do something with an unknown and potentially scary outcome, they get deeper learning. In a recent TED talk, for example, Diane Laufenberg describes how she asks students to research, plan, and carry out projects that respond to real world problems. These are risky activities--hosting an election debate, for example. She makes a strong case that there is better learning in these activities than in rote learning, or in learning where there is a single right answer to a problem.
Well enough. But in thinking this way, educators take a pre-probability view of risk. Or in other words, educators focus on the role of uncertainty or indeterminacy in learning. Educators value uncertainty.
Students, on the other hand, live in a world of probabilities. They are risk managers, constantly adjusting their priorities, time, and relationships in order to get the best likely outcome. Hence the questions about what will be on the test, or whether there is extra credit; hence the requests for an extra point here and there. In doing these things, students are managing their risks, gathering information that will allow them to more accurately predict the results of their actions. Students value strategy.
What does the strategic orientation to risk among students mean to teachers? Do you derail the strategic orientation by doing away with grades? Should schools offer only one course at a time so that course gets the student's entire attention? Or are there ways to take advantage of student risk management to get good learning?
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