Thursday, 20 August 2009

Game of Risk

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Albert Einstein

What do teachers mean when they ask students to take risks and more importantly, what do students themselves understand by such advice?

Risk-taking is a familiar but vital aspect of everyday life. It contributes to our deeper understanding of the world and prepares us to face difficulties and challenges with greater confidence and awareness. It adds vitality, stimulation, and excitement to our experiences and is often a motivating factor that challenges people to pursue more interesting, purposeful, and meaningful lives. By contrast, lives without risk-taking are often boring, routine, predictable, or perhaps worst of all, in the case of artists anyway, unimaginative. In fact it’s almost impossible to conceive of how an artist could function without taking risks.

Frequently I’ve heard colleagues say to students “you need to take more risks” or the more cringe-worthy “you need to move out of your comfort zone” but I’ve rarely heard a student question this advice or ask for more detail. It seems to be almost a given that everyone tends to “play safe” in life, that we’re cautious creatures of habit, tending to stick to familiar paths and rarely to wander off into uncertain terrain. So when someone suggests that we should take more risks, we simply accept the fact on the understanding that they’ve probably recognised something that we’d rather wasn’t the case: a little like when someone points out that we have a grain of rice stuck to our chin. Under no circumstances does anyone want to be seen as being over cautions, especially in the context of the arts, so to suggest that they need to “take more risks” is rarely going to be met with resistance. If you wanted an easy piece of advice that is guaranteed to apply to almost all situations then this is it, because it’s almost always true.

Or, at least that’s the way it seems: the teacher feels they have identified a weakness and provided a simple nugget of advice on how to deal with it and the student nods affirmatively and goes away with something to cogitate over and act upon. They might even return some time later and thank the teacher for the good advice. And so it goes.

What makes this piece of advice so “clever” is what also makes horoscopes popular: you can apply it to almost any situation. This is not to say that such vague statements are bad, damaging or dishonest, in fact in some cases, like horoscopes, they can even serve a positive purpose since they have the potential to frame our consideration of the future and perhaps condition some of the more difficult decisions we face.

But despite the fact that horoscopes and aphoristic statements like “you need to take more risks” can be vaguely helpful (how else could they survive?) they never go into detail about particular situations or specific needs and they rarely, if ever, offer solutions to a specifically identified problem or weakness on the part of the recipient.

On occasion it’s ok to make such vague or general statements and to allow students to extrapolate, develop and discover their own interpretation and understanding of their relevance. If Socrates was right that “an unexamined life is not worth living” then it’s probably a good thing to encourage the habit of examining creative choices on a regular basis.

But who’s doing the examining? My point is that sometimes it’s too easy - too risky even - to expect the student to do all the work. If communication and understanding have any value in education then it’s, at the very least, presumptuous to assume that students will understand what such a vague statements are intended to suggest, if anything at all. This is why the “take some risks” statement, if it goes without qualification, is actually practically irresponsible, because if advice is really to have an effect it needs to be examined not just by the student but by the teacher and this examination itself needs to be offered up for scrutiny.

It‘s not quite true that the greatest risk in life is to take no risks at all. The real risk is to fail to realise that life is already full of them (even attempting to take no risks is fraught with its own dangers), but in order to make the most of risks they must be recognised, examined, exploited and most of all learned from.


J. Hamlyn said...

Willingness to take risks can only come about when students (or anyone for that matter) feels secure enough to fail. So it's the teacher's (Education's) duty to ensure that every possible measure is taken to alleviate pressure upon students and certainly not to add a little extra in the form of an intimidating grade for effort.

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