Taking educated risks in the classroom – part four

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in July 2016.  This is the final part of a four-part article on educated risks in the classroom.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  You can read the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here


Catch up on the full series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three 

“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” – William Butler Yeats

In part three of this four-part series, I said that the level of autonomy afforded to teachers is dependent (to some extent) on where their school is along the path to excellence – schools need to tighten up the constraints on autonomy in order to become “good” but must loosen those constraints in order to become “outstanding”.

Another important consideration to be taken into account is teachers’ individual experience and expertise – an NQT will require more assistance and direction than a staffroom stalwart, for example.

Last time, I also argued that individual autonomy and professionalism were not synonymous because to be a professional was to work as part of a profession, not to work idiosyncratically. However, collective autonomy and professionalism could become synonymous because professional autonomy was about supporting and challenging one another to ensure we all improved by reflecting on feedback, by analysing our impact, by engaging in deliberate practice, and by learning from our mistakes.

I went on to explore the importance of professional autonomy and, specifically, of risk-taking – of being able to exercise freedom and personal judgement. However, I said that, in order to understand what risk-taking in education meant in practice and why it was important, we needed to answer a more fundamental question: what is the purpose of education?

Three purposes of education

In The Beautiful Risk of Education, Gert Biesta posits that education has three purposes: qualification, which has to do with the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and dispositions; socialisation, which has to do with the ways in which, through education, we have become part of existing traditions and ways of doing and being; and subjectification, which has to do with the interest of education in the subjectivity or “subject-ness” of those we educate, as well as emancipation and freedom.

In Biesta’s view, therefore, education is not just about the reproduction of what we already know or of what already exists, it is about creating new beginnings.

If we regard education as a means of creating new knowledge and not just of “passing on” existing knowledge then we must move beyond notions of compliance and conformity and encourage greater risk-taking and experimentation in the classroom. Teachers cannot inflexibly follow a lesson plan if we are to focus on helping our students to engage with and come into the world.

As a student, I vividly recall A level English literature lessons in which we discussed Shakespeare’s King Lear. Our class – expertly guided by our teacher – discovered through our interactions what I then thought to be profound new interpretations of the play and, moreover, of life and love itself.

I learnt life lessons from our discussions of that play that have remained with me to this day. I created new knowledge and understandings. I engaged with and thus came further into the world; our class created, together through our guided interactions, new beginnings. No teacher could have written a lesson plan for what we learnt. It was an organic process through which we grew as people as well as learners.

All this may sound pretentious – and it probably is, but then that’s English for you – but it carries with it a fundamental truth: in those lessons and in those discussions, we came to see the world differently, we came to understand life anew. The earth tilted on its axis.

And this is what great teaching is all about: it doesn’t just “pass on” established wisdom – although it certainly does that as well – it establishes new meanings and forges new connections and understandings, it changes the self and the world around the self.

Education is a social art – it is more than mere production or reproduction. And even Aristotle said we should never think of education only as a process of production…

Poiesis and praxis

Aristotle made the distinction between two modes of acting, poiesis and praxis – making action and doing action. Poiesis is about the production or fabrication of things; it is about the creation of something that did not exist before. Praxis is the domain of the variable – the world of human action and interaction.

While education is clearly located in the domain of the variable, it is concerned with the interaction between human beings not the interaction between human beings and the material world. Education is precisely what production (or poiesis) is not because we teachers cannot claim to “produce” students.

We educate them. We help them to change, to become something new and different. What’s more, we help them to see and interact with the world in new and different ways. This is exactly what happened to me in those A level English literature lessons – I became something new and different, I saw and interacted with the world in new and different ways as a direct result of those lessons.

More than just ‘passing it on’

Sharon Todd, in her book Learning from the Other (2003), argues that teaching only has meaning if it carries with it a notion of “transcendence”, that is to say, if it is understood as something that adds to rather than just confirms what is already there – in other words, education must create new knowledge and understandings not simply “pass on” existing knowledge.

Todd quotes Levinas who makes the claim that “teaching is not reducible to maieutics (the Socratic mode of enquiry, but) comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain”. In other words, in the act of teaching – through education – we achieve far more than simply “passing it on”, we create new meanings and new understandings. And often this creation is the result of the interaction itself, it is the very process of teaching that leads to new beginnings being forged.

In other words, teaching is essential rather than accidental to learning. Indeed, as Kierkegaard (1985) argues, teaching is about more than simply presenting students with something they do not yet know, rather it is about presenting students with something that “is neither derivable from nor validated by what (they) already know” but truly transcends what they already know.

Todd and Kierkegaard both argue that teaching must have meaning beyond the facilitation of learning. In other words, teaching must have a meaning that comes from the outside and brings something radically new as in Levinas’ understanding of teaching as a relationship in which I receive from the other “beyond the capacity of the I” – to emancipate students. Indeed, the idea that the purpose of education is to emancipate students – to free them as individuals – played an important role in the establishment of education as an academic discipline.

Education as a result of communication

So, education is not a process of simply dumping knowledge from teacher to student, but of meaning and interpretation that involves discussion and debate and the creation of new knowledge and understandings. And it is surely logical to argue that existing knowledge should be discussed and interpreted not simply imparted from one mind to another because, as John Dewey wrote (in his book Experience and Nature, 1929), “consciousness, thinking, subjectivity, meaning, intelligence, language, rationality, logic, inference and truth only come into existence through and as a result of communication”.

Moreover, “when communication occurs … all natural events are subject to reconsideration and revision; they are re-adapted to meet the requirements of conversation, whether it be public discourse or that preliminary discourse termed thinking”.

Dewey seems to agree that education is a social art – more than mere production or reproduction. In Democracy and Education (1916), he said that in education “a being connected with other beings cannot perform his own activities without taking the activities of others into account (because) they are indispensable conditions of the realisation of his tendencies”.

Communication, he argued, should be understood as “a process of sharing experience until it becomes a common possession”. In other words, education is the “participation in a common understanding”.

Human interactions

In short, education is about a warm human interaction. It is about a connection between a teacher and a student, and between a student and other students. It is indeed (to quote Matthew Arnold) about learning the best which has been thought and said – Gradgrind’s “nothing but facts” – and then learning how to apply those facts in a range of different contexts and making connections between them.

But it is also about the domain of the variable, concerned with the interaction between human beings. It is about helping students to change, to become something new and different and to see and interact with the world in new and different ways. It is something that comes from the outside and adds to rather than just confirms what is already there; it comes from the exterior and brings more than it contains.

It is along these lines that Dewey suggests a crucial difference between education and training. Training, he says, is about the situations in which those who learn do not really share in the use to which their actions are put; they are not a partner in a shared activity. Education, on the other hand, is about those situations in which teachers and students share or participate in a common activity, in which they have a shared interest in its accomplishment.

In those situations, participants’ ideas and emotions are changed as a result of their very participation: a student “not merely acts in a way agreeing with the action of others, but, in so acting, the same ideas and emotions are aroused in (the student) that animate others”. It is not therefore transmitted from one person to another. It is because people share in a common activity that their ideas and emotions are transformed as a direct result of the activity itself.

The importance of student activity

In Democracy and Education, Dewey says that to have the same ideas about things that others have is “to attach the same meanings to things” – something that is brought about through communication and conjoint action. Here’s the crux of the argument: Dewey rejects the idea that a student can simply discover the meaning of the world through careful observation from the outside – or by being taught “the best which has been thought and said”.

Instead, Dewey suggests that students learn from the practices in which they take part, they learn by participating in a shared experience. In other words, it is only through the act of learning and engaging in classroom activity that they discover the meaning of the world; meaning cannot be derived without this interaction.

Dewey also makes the point that participation has the potential to generate a particular kind of learning – namely, learning that leads to a transformation of ideas, emotions, and understanding of all who take part in an activity in such a way that a common or shared outlook emerges.

Dewey is not alone – Ernst Von Glasersfeld, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky all emphasise the importance of student activity and their theories of the constructivist classroom are based on the assumption that students have to construct their own insights, understandings and knowledge, and that teachers cannot do this for them. And this, above all else, is why experimentation and risk-taking is important and why teaching, if it is to become outstanding, cannot be prescribed…


Teachers must be empowered with professional autonomy – working with colleagues in a way that leads to greater consistency and coherence, in a way that leads to the same high standards of education being afforded to every student no matter their individual context – supporting and challenging each other to ensure they improve by reflecting on feedback, by analysing their impact, by engaging in deliberate practice, and by learning from their mistakes. Why?

Because if we are to regard education as a means of creating new knowledge and not just of “passing on” existing knowledge then we must move beyond notions of compliance and conformity and encourage greater risk-taking and experimentation in the classroom.

Teachers cannot inflexibly follow a lesson plan if we are to focus on helping our students to engage with, and thus come into, the world. And the purpose of education is, if nothing else, to help our students find their own way into the world and to create their own new beginnings, to forge their own futures.

If you’re interested in reading more about risk-taking in education, why not pick up a copy of my latest book…

teach2-3DMy new book, Teach 2: Educated Risks, is out now.

Buy the paperback

Download it on your Kindle

From Amazon:

“A wise, accessible and practically useful book” – Professor Bill Lucas, Author of Educating Ruby

“Compelling… clear and convincingly argued” – Dr Jill Berry, Author of Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy Headship to Headship

“A useful summary of research on teaching and learning. In encouraging us to ‘connect everything back to our students’ – it makes a helpful contribution to the literature.” – Mary Myatt, senior Ofsted inspector and author of High Challenge, Low Threat

‘Teach 2’ is a follow-up to the best-selling book on pedagogy by the author of ‘Leadership for Learning’, ‘The IQ Myth’, and ‘How to Become a School Leader’. It has something for everyone: from the NQT looking for teaching tips to the experienced school principal in search of leadership inspiration.

Within its pages, we examine what it means to be a great teacher and what great teaching really looks and feels like in practice. We analyse how to model high expectations in the classroom and reveal the habits of academic achievement. We consider ways of closing the gap that exists between the educational achievement of boys and girls and how to help our students transfer their learning from one context to another, thus making learning universal. We also share some useful lesson planning advice and consider the cornerstones of great curriculum design.

This book is subtitled ‘Educated Risks’ and, as such, we explore the importance of risk-taking in education – of avoiding group-think and a culture of compliance. We pose some big questions about the nature of education and about what it means to be a member of the teaching profession.

Photo 27-04-2016, 09 38 58

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