Risky Business | Alden Blodget | 8 Min Read

March 15, 2023

Of all the claims that schools make, perhaps the most ubiquitous is the assertion that “our students learn to take risks.” Risk-taking is meant to suggest that students are able to “move out of their comfort zones” by trying new things—like befriending classmates from other cultures or leaping into new activities or, especially, engaging with new ideas, trying new courses, and thinking independently. By claiming that they encourage risk-taking, schools imply that students feel safe enough to take a chance. Educators certainly want to believe their schools are safe, so they claim they are and convince themselves of their own mythology.

However, although many young people may take some social risks or try new activities (motivated by colleges, which encourage resume-building), my experience is that the vast majority resist scholastic risk. During the decades I spent overseeing students’ programs of study, caution and fear tended to dominate their decisions about whether to challenge themselves or not. Students interested in honors physics or a difficult literature elective frequently opted for the less demanding, less personally engaging course in which they knew they could get an A or B. Fear that the speed bump of a C (or worse) might slow their drive toward Bowdoin or Stanford cooled the desire to pursue any real interest.

This fear was supported by teachers and parents. It was not unusual for the hockey coach to let me know that one of his players should drop a difficult course “because the kid doesn’t need it; he’s going to be accepted at Michigan if he keeps his B- average.” Advisors and parents constantly swooped into my office at the first tremor of struggle to persuade me to move a child to an easier course or a less demanding teacher—especially if the current teacher was a “hard grader.”

The pressure to get high grades is relentless. In addition to the messages from the college admissions process, students move through constant reminders of the tyranny of grades—honor rolls, achievement awards, honor societies, cum laude designations, my-child-is-an-honors-student bumper stickers. Privileges are bestowed for high grades: passes to ski resorts, reduced car insurance, freedom from having to take exams or attend study hall, and even (ironically) permission to cut a few classes. Parents reward good grades with new cars or trips to Aruba. Where is the incentive to take a risk? Pity the poor schmuck who tried Organic Chemistry knowing he would struggle for a C. Too bad. No honors dinner for you. And you gave Harvard an excuse to reject you. Hello.

Adolescents can be pretty insightful about themselves, about their strengths and weaknesses, and one of the idealistic messages they get from schools is that they should work on their weaknesses and challenge themselves. We all know the sort of courage it takes to confront a weakness, and I wonder how many of us find the courage if we know doing so may jeopardize a raise or promotion—or if we know our efforts would likely result in low job-performance ratings (like C’s and D’s) on a permanent record that would determine our future. How eager would we be to take a risk?

For Andrea, this courage was absent until she entered a program that didn’t use grades: “Finally, I could focus on areas that I felt were weaknesses and not feel anxious about earning letter grades. I was taking classes that I wanted to take and learning more because I did not have the added pressure of worrying about grades.” Andrea wanted to work on her weaknesses, and she had interests to pursue. Once she was free of the fear of the grade, she could take the sort of risks that could result in meaningful learning.

Recently, the discussions about chatbots have revealed the chasm that has always separated learning, grades, and risk-taking. Despite the comforting belief that grades measure learning, it’s the final product—correct answers and formulaic essays submitted on time—that receive the high grades. Not the thinking and learning and discoveries—not the struggle—that result from the process of writing. After all, these are ungradable, especially when the students are focused on trying to please their teachers—tell the teachers what they want to hear. As researchers tell us, we think in the service of emotional goals, and since the emotionally relevant goal is a high grade, that’s what students think about: the grade, the product, and the finished essay, not the process—the path to the highest grade with the least effort. As a result, they tend not to be deeply engaged in concepts and skills or learning and discovery. Resorting to chatbots becomes the logical strategy—well-written essays churned out quickly. Because grades matter to them, they’ll risk getting caught cheating.

The New York Times published an article reporting on how colleges are reacting to chatbots. The teachers’ concerns revolve around grade-centered issues of cheating and strategies for thwarting the use of artificial intelligence: using “in-class assignments, handwritten papers, group work, and oral exams”; “crafting questions that they hope will be too clever for chatbots and asking students to write about their own lives and current events”; planning “to institute stricter standards for what they expect from students and how they grade.” 

Rather than focusing on and educating students about the power of writing as a process that improves thinking and learning and that deepens students’ engagement and conceptual understanding, these professors plan “to embed a discussion of A.I. tools into required courses that teach entering or freshman students about concepts such as academic integrity.” Why not embed in their composition courses discussions about how A.I. undermines thinking and learning? Why not rethink how we teach writing? Why not explore the strategy of eliminating grades to encourage students to take a risk and choose to engage in the act of writing rather than relying on chatbots? Debates over “how teachers grade” miss the point. That we grade at all is the problem.

And the problem becomes even more obvious when we consider the inevitable and essential role of regression in learning (Kurt W. Fischer). Learning involves a process of building and rebuilding interconnected webs of skills and conceptual understanding. During this process, students’ basic understanding or abilities begin to develop, but as a skill or concept becomes more complex or as the context in which it must be applied becomes more challenging, this understanding collapses and must be rebuilt. This process of building, collapse (or regression), and rebuilding is necessary in order to create stable networks that can be recruited in increasingly complex situations. For example, students might learn addition and subtraction, but as they are introduced to problems involving multiplication and division, their ability to add and subtract may initially regress before they rebuild that understanding and integrate it with their new conceptual sense of multiplying and dividing.

Unfortunately, many teachers tend to see and treat this regression as a failure and slap an F on it. No wonder students become wary when they hear claims that their school provides a safe environment for failure: “Our students are encouraged to learn from failure.” Even the word failure suggests that many educators don’t understand the vital role that regression plays in learning. Regression is not failure. Punishing it with an F just succeeds in making students even more risk-averse.

Although eliminating grades entirely would produce the most meaningful and far-reaching improvements in education, other strategies can also be effective. I found that giving students more control over their grades helped—inviting students to submit essays for my comments and to write unlimited drafts and then letting them decide when they felt an essay was ready to grade; letting them create their own schedule for submitting their weekly writing; encouraging them to rewrite and improve a graded essay for a higher grade (completely expunging the prior grade, not averaging it with the new one).

Too many students do not experience school as a safe place. Although grades are central to their anxiety, they aren’t the only factors. Imagine how students go through their day. They move from teacher to teacher listening to criticism and the often public focus on their errors and shortcomings. For too many students, classes can be like navigating a minefield of sarcasm and derisive laughter, from classmates as well as, sadly, even a few teachers. Sometimes, appearing stupid sets off an explosion of laughter; sometimes, appearing smart cues a chorus of groans. And heaven forbid that students challenge a teacher by suggesting an opinion or perspective that differs from the teacher’s—a factor with a crushing effect on students learning to write (or learning anything). Why engage in independent thinking that is not rewarded? Keeping very still and quiet, choosing the path of least resistance, and relying on easy shortcuts become survival strategies.

At admissions events or on parents’ day or at graduation, I listen to the veneer of fine claims being brushed over the reality of the schools I know, and I marvel at our capacity for self-deception. Taking risks is not encouraged by the structures or practices or culture of schools. Taking risks of the sorts that schools know are essential to learning does not come easily or naturally to anyone in threatening environments. While adolescents may be masters of risky behavior in the adult-free worlds of sex, drugs, and dumb-and-dumber peer pressure, they need to feel safe in the more adult-mediated world of school in order to experiment with becoming educated adults.

Schools know this. They understand the connection between taking intellectual risks and learning. That’s why they claim to graduate risk-takers. It’s good PR. Much more difficult is the task of designing schools that make risk-taking less risky.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Alden Blodget for Intrepid Ed News.

Alden Blodget

Veteran teacher and administrator Alden S. "Denny" Blodget is the author of "Learning, Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions." He also helped create the Annenberg Foundation's Neuroscience & the Classroom. He is the editor for TeensParentsTeachers.org, a free online resource focusing on issues affecting young people and the adults who work with them.

One thought on “Risky Business | Alden Blodget | 8 Min Read

  1. Absolutely true, even in the 80’s when I was a student. Thank you for putting into words what I’ve always known: You can’t celebrate risk takers and perfect grades at the same time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *