“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
-- T. S. Eliot
To thrive in a world and workplace defined by continual change, self-directed, constant learning is essential. This kind of learning requires a bold mindset that welcomes the unknown and values the benefits of taking risks.
By risk taking, I mean intellectual risk taking: the willingness to try new things, productively struggle and learn by trial and error.
While research supports the theory that intellectual risk taking is beneficial to learning, the American educational system and college preparatory education continue to be slow to shift from fact-based to skills-based knowledge building. In many settings, students are essentially taught the “correct” approach to solving a problem and are rewarded when they repeat it. As a result, students can succeed in these environments without really learning how to solve problems for themselves. What’s more, they can become conditioned to avoid taking on challenges unless they already know the precise actions needed to meet them.
This risk-averse mindset can be especially prevalent in college preparatory settings with high performing and academically aspiring students. For students who hope to follow a path of achievement to the college of their choice, taking risks in the classroom can feel, well, too risky.
Academic preparation marked by playing it safe and getting good grades might result in a solid college transcript, but today’s students need something more. Young people need to be ready to thrive in a world we adults can’t quite predict, so they need the courage to try things that make them a little uncomfortable.
How do we talk about the importance of an intellectual risk-taking mindset and how do we cultivate it in our students?
A term that can be helpful in understanding how risk taking and self-directed learning converge is “intellectual entrepreneurship.” Originally coined at the University of Texas at Austin, the expression lends its name to a successful graduate program structured to help students think beyond the silos of their chosen disciplines, engage their academic learning in the world and use an entrepreneur’s mindset to guide their careers and help their communities.
According to the program’s director, Professor Richard Cherwitz, intellectual entrepreneurs “take risks and seize opportunities, discover and create knowledge, innovate, collaborate, and solve problems in any number of social realms: corporate, non-profit, government and education.” That’s what we have been striving for at Pacific Ridge for more than a decade.
Words familiar to us constantly crop up when reading about intellectual entrepreneurship: integration, self-discovery, problem solving, collaboration, leadership, passion, purpose. Fortunately for students at Pacific Ridge, these qualities and concepts are built into the fabric of our school and the unique structure of our program positions us to do even more.
To see intellectual risk-taking, one need only visit a Harkness classroom. For a teenager, steering an academic lesson through discussion with peers involves risk. Bringing authentic voice to the table, sharing knowledge and ignorance, opening up to feedback – all of that involves risk and courage. Harkness is a way that students can become comfortable with and celebrate risk taking day in and day out.
In addition, risk taking and productive struggle happen daily in our math and world language programs. Problem-based learning in the math curriculum teaches students to tackle unfamiliar puzzles, think creatively and embrace making mistakes as part of discovery. Immersion in the language classroom similarly teaches the value of learning through constant experimentation, error and correction.
A new avenue for promoting intellectual entrepreneurship that I am particularly excited about is the restructuring of our science curriculum for grades 7-10. Prompted by a desire to incorporate more computer science and engineering into our core science program, the new curriculum, with its integrated, hands-on approach, cultivates self-directed learning skills and creative problem-solving. You can read more about the genesis of the new curriculum on page 4.
Outside the classroom, our co-curricular program is full of entrepreneurial opportunities, from the upper school service learning program and its student-initiated and led service groups, to the global travel program in which “leaning into discomfort” yields profound moments of growth. These learning opportunities are becoming more and more essential to an education that prepares students for the future.
Beyond a school’s program, its intellectual culture also matters. In my English class this year, we have all realized that our conversations are better when students stretch their ideas and respectfully disagree with one another. One student even jokingly asked, “Can we get extra credit for disagreeing?” I laughed, but the idea is not far off. We do want to incentivize young people to think boldly, take stands and learn from different opinions and perspectives.
Foreducators, even at forward-looking schools like Pacific Ridge, adjusting time-honored approaches to better suit today’s needs can itself require courage. However, our students deserve it. When it comes to educating young people today, taking intellectual risks is not a risk – it is a necessity.