10 Ways To Foster Academic Risk-Taking In Math Class

10 ways to build academic risk-takers

The term risk-taker describes a person who takes risks and tries new things. You may find various definitions of what it means to be an academic risk-taker. In classrooms that foster academic risk-taking, the teacher rarely provides step by step details to solve a problem. Instead, students do the majority of the cognitive work during lessons and teachers serve as a facilitator. Therefore, in classrooms where academic risk-taking is encouraged, little time is spent on note taking, working in a silo, or listening to the teacher lecture for most of the block. Alternatively, students are actively engaged in discussions, using creativity, and solving problems using a variety of strategies. 

Academic risk-taking involves students:

  • stepping out of their comfort zone to try new things
  • embracing challenges
  • seeking feedback from peers and teachers
  • showing perseverance when they experience a difficult task
  • being able to set growth goals
  • reflecting on their progress toward goal
  • taking ownership of their learning and taking pride in their work
  • learning and sharing ideas through collaboration
  • being brave enough to answer and ask questions

Teachers often categorize professional development opportunities ineffective when there's no differentiation based on skill level and delivered in lecture style with limited time to collaborate, plan and practice with other educators. Reflect on your professional development experiences. When did you learn the most? When were you most engaged? When did you leave a session feeling empowered? I'm more engrossed in professional development when it's in an environment where I feel comfortable being right or wrong,  provides space for dialogue, offers experiential learning opportunities, and allows me to use multiple learning modes. However, many math classrooms exhibit the same traits that teachers often dislike about professional development structures for educators.

The teacher's role in developing academic risk-takers is to guide and encourage students to explore new strategies or ideas. To do this effectively, teachers must create a safe learning environment. Students need to feel like it's okay to be wrong sometimes and that no one knows everything. Likewise, it's imperative that students understand that teachers make mistakes too regardless of their level of experience. 

As a math teacher, I made plenty of errors when solving problems and challenged students to correct me when they noticed a mistake. Being vulnerable and admitting that I don't know everything helped build trust with my students. However, for academic risk-taking to occur in classrooms, students need to trust their classmates as well. Most tweens and teens care about their peers' opinion and often make decisions based on their feedback. Therefore, teachers must make it a priority to promote a culture of risk-taking in the classroom. 

How can teachers foster academic risk-taking? 

Building academic risk-takers is not a one and done task. It's important for students to hear, see or experience the importance of academic risk-taking on a daily basis. I often receive questions from teachers seeking instructional strategies to increase risk-taking in their classroom.  The good news is that it's possible to build a culture of risk-taking using a variety of strategies. Some of these strategies can be implemented in classrooms immediately, and a few are attainable with planning within a few days. 

I suggest taking bite-sized actions to form teaching habits. As these small actions become habits, add a new strategy to your teaching practice until your classroom environment becomes a safe learning space where students feel comfortable embracing challenges.

Here are a few ways teachers can begin to create an environment of risk-taking in their classroom.

Let's Recap:

  1. Increase student engagement by making learning relevant to real-life situations.
  2. Introduce students to the importance of having a growth mindset.
  3. Allow student choice and voice in assignments.
  4. Provide praise on the process of learning (effort and growth) and not the end product (grade).
  5.  Model common mistakes and share your epic failures.
  6. Give space for students to try out their ideas in small groups before asking them to share whole class.
  7. Encourage creativity through active learning strategies.
  8. Create the appropriate level of support to encourage students to persevere through challenges.
  9. Permit students to use teacher and peer feedback to make changes to their ideas or assignments.
  10. Promote the use of flexible engagement to solve problems.

Each month, we will share tips for building academic risk-takers inside and outside the classroom. Join our email community for additional resources. 

Next steps: Reflect on your current classroom environment. What is one way that you are cultivating a community of academic risk- takers? What is one new strategy that you plan to try to increase your efforts?