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The risk paradox

We changed our timetable this week and have made start on 2011/12, which means I got to meet my new classes and get going on their new courses. This is such a crucial time. Somehow, you’ve got to find the balance between setting the right tone with your new classes and the inevitable wind down towards the end of term. Two of my classes are making a start on their Intermediate 1 Biology courses and I’ve been fighting the strong urge to play it safe. I’ve decided to take what feels like a risky strategy, but why do I think it’s risky…?

To give a bit of context, this course kicks off by learning about the nature of health in terms of physical, mental & social health and then moves onto considering how physiological measurements of health can be taken. In the past, I wouldn’t have given too much thought on how to approach this…draw the health triangle…complete a worksheet on staying healthy…draw a table of methods of taking physiological measurements…and so on. My assumption had been that I would employ similar methods this time around, but I really didn’t want to. This was not the tone I wanted to set with my new classes and felt that if I started in this rather predictable manner, then I would struggle to ever break out of this in the future. Despite this strong desire, I was worried about taking a riskier approach. What if it didn’t work? What if the behaviour was awful?

The strange thing is, my old method wasn’t terribly successful. The pupils tended to find the content quite boring and would soon start playing up. Even worse, they wouldn’t be able to remember any of this particularly well in a few months time. So why on earth would I consider this approach to be the safe one? Is it because it resulted in a relatively quiet classroom with me in control? Or perhaps because it generated jotters filled with notes? Or maybe I just feel it’s what everyone, including the pupils, expect of me? It’s surprising how hard it is to break out of these drivers!

Anyway, despite this strange internal pressure, I managed to resist. I kicked off with some circle time to discuss how we should approach learning as a class. I followed this with a group challenge to draw the health triangle based on short 10 second individual opportunities to view one copy of it at the front. We then made a video of the whole class acting out the health triangle which we watched next lesson before designing posters for doctors’ surgeries to promote all three aspects of health. My plan for the next lessons was to break the groups up into expert teams to research and present on each of the four physiological measurements they need to know, but one of the pupils in one of the classes has suggested we make health promotion adverts instead so we’re going to do that first…

And the result? The pupils’ behaviour has been outstanding – they’ve been much more engaged and motivated so far than I would’ve anticipated from my old approaches – and more importantly, they’re really learning it. But why would I doubt that? All my experience and reading in the last few years emphatically point to these sorts of strategies being significantly more successful, but for some reason when faced with the reality of 40 new S3 pupils it still takes a bit of a leap of faith to take what feels like a risk, but really isn’t at all.


  • Reply KENNY PIEPER |

    Great post, Fearghal, know exactly what you mean. We do, as teachers, often revert to a default position of doing what we’ve always done because it seems, indeed, safe. Taking risks is exactly what we should do every day. After all, as Picasso said, ‘If you know exactly what you’re going to do, what’s the point of doing it?’ Great post to end a great week.

  • Reply Drew |

    Great post Fearghal. Trying something risky is always going to involve feelings of trepidation, but it’s better that than giving it barely any thought and doing what is comfortable and familiar. Perhaps the novelty of the experience is enough to make what is being learned more memorable for the pupils? They are fortunate to have a teacher who is willing to take those risks on their behalf. How do you plan to maintain this approach?

  • Reply fearghal |

    Thanks guys. I think perhaps the answer is something to do with this not being about taking risks, but trying something different. We probably shouldn’t be calling it a ‘risk’ when it’s not – the risk actually is continuing to do what we’ve always done, even though we’re comfortable with it.

    Cracking question Drew about maintaining this…that’s probably my biggest worry. I think two things will help with that, firstly we’re implementing an accelerated learning cycle approach to planning across the school, and it’s become apparent to me that if I use this approach for the Int.1 Biology courses this will force me to continue to think about what we’ll do.

    The other is the pupils. I had thought that in time I’ll be able to involve the pupils to a greater extent in planning what we do…but that already happened in week one!

  • Reply wendy wallace |

    Really liked this Fearghal! CfE at its best! Adrenalin, fear, creativity, inspiration, risk and motivational learning – and that’s just you! Not so difficult to maintain as you think as it is your creative thought which will continue it! Great post and going to my staff on Monday!

  • Reply Linda |

    Well done Fearghal for stepping out your comfort zone and re-evaluating things. I’m sure the kids will love learning in your classes and now be more motivated to learn. It’ll be interesting to see their assessment results after this block – they’re already discovering then applying their knowledge so hopefully will do better in their test. A great example of good old Bloom’s Taxonomy!

  • Reply Julie Sutherland |

    Hi Fearghal, I’ve recently started reading your blog, and this post really struck a chord with me, it’s so easy to think “I’ve done this before, so here we again”, but to try new approaches can be much more rewarding for you and the pupils, even though it may be out of your comfort zone. Which is a bit like my recent excursions into the blogosphere!

So, what do you think ?