Teaching, learning and risk

I’ve had these ideas bouncing around in my head for a week or so and finally have a few minutes to try and get them out. I’ve been wondering why changing practice – in higher education and the clinical context – is so hard, and one way that I think I can make some sense out of it is to use the idea of risk.

To change anything is to take a risk where we don’t know what the outcome will be. We risk messing up something that kind-of-works-OK and replacing it with something that could be worse. To change our practice is to risk moving into spaces we might find uncomfortable. To take a risk is to make a decision that you’re OK with not knowing; to be OK with not understanding; to be OK with uncertainty. And many of us are really not OK with any of those things. And so we resist the change because when we don’t take the risk we’re choosing to be safe. I get that.

But the irony is that we ask our students to take risks every single day because to learn is to risk. Learning is partly about making yourself vulnerable by admitting – to yourself and others – that there is something you don’t know. And to be vulnerable is to risk being hurt. We expect our students to move into those uncomfortable spaces where they have take ownership of not knowing and of being uncertain.”Put your hand up if you don’t know.” To put your hand up and announce – to everyone – that you don’t have the answer is really risky.

Why is it OK for us to ask students to put themselves at risk if we’re not prepared to do the same. If my students must put their hands up and announce their ignorance, why don’t I? If change is about risk and so is learning, is it reasonable to ask if changing is about learning? And if that’s true, what does it say about those of us who resist change?

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.