The fastest kid on the team was standing beside me on first base looking pretty pleased with the nice single he had just dropped into the second base gap, scoring his teammate to move the team into a 4-4 tie. I give him a high five as he looks up at me grinning with satisfaction. The next batter steps to the plate; the first-baseman settles back into his spot as I lean down. “If it’s in the dirt, go,” I whisper. The ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and bounces low off his catcher’s glove. It’s lost in the dirt; he goes…three steps…then runs back. “Why didn’t you go,” I asked? “I don’t know,” he replied. I didn’t know either; while he is a newer player, he’s one of the fastest kids on the team! What’s going on here?
This same scenario plays itself out time after time, each and every day in our classrooms. Willingness to take risks, whether it’s on the baseball diamond, in the classroom or somewhere else, requires two components; personal confidence and trust in ourselves and those around us. While the percentage necessary for each element varies tremendously from child to child and task to task, these are the ingredients necessary for a student to take a risk. My young ballplayer, being somewhat new to the team, could have been lacking in both.
- Confidence: He knew he was fast, as we had completed many drills in practice that had proven this fact. However, it was the first time he was in a situation where it mattered. What if he wasn’t fast enough? He wasn’t confident that he could pull it off.
- Trust: In this situation, where he lacked confidence, I could’ve helped him to take a risk if he had only trusted me. We were new to working together, so he didn’t know that I wasn’t going to be upset if he got out. He didn’t know that I had a lot of experience coaching other young men like him and knew that he had the capacity to steal that base. For these reasons, in the end, he didn’t trust me.
Taking risks with learning requires this same unique blend of confidence and trust. Students come into our classes each day knowing that they will be asked to take risks. Those who have confidence in their skills will naturally become engaged in answering teachers’ questions and proudly complete their assignments. However, the student lacking confidence will need larger amounts of trust to attempt those same tasks. In the context of a day, students are asked to answer questions, work in groups, take quizzes, check each other’s homework assignments, record notes, and a multitude of other tasks, which can represent a huge risk for some students. As teachers, we can support the student in a variety of ways that can build trust while helping him/her surpass this lack of confidence. The key isn’t usually to avoid the task; that typically prevents the student from improving their skills and provides no opportunity to develop confidence or trust. In all cases, where a student’s confidence falls short, we are presented with an opportunity to build trust. Find a classroom where all students are willing to take academic risks and you’ll find a place where a teacher has successfully established a culture of trust.
I lean down to my young ballplayer, looking him straight in the eye, and say, “If it’s in the dirt go. I have confidence in you…trust me…and if it doesn’t work it’ll be my fault because I’m the one that told you to go!” I knew he would make it, but on the times that he didn’t, together we discussed the reasons and the entire team became better ball payers as a result. His teammates watched how I handled him getting out and that permitted them to trust me as well. Over time that young ballplayer gained both confidence and trust. He became a base-stealing machine that, with each stolen base, grew more confident. As he did, the amount of trust he required became less and less, but, because it was there, he knew it was alright to take the risk!
- Consider the risks you ask of your students each day. Raising their hand to answer a question? Complete a homework assignment? Work with a peer? Become aware of everything that is perceived to be a risk by your students.
- What results when a student isn’t willing to take a risk? Failure to complete an assignment? Acting out in class? Put their head down? Children avoid risks in a variety of ways. So you can respond appropriately, become aware of each child’s response when they aren’t willing to take a risk. Were they lacking confidence, trust, or both?
- Consider this equation for risk-taking C+T=R (Confidence+Trust=willingness to take a Risk). Sometimes a student may take a risk with 100% confidence or with a 50/50 balance. Consider how well you know your students. What are their sources of confidence? Do they trust you? Their peers? Others around them? Is it possible that in the presence of a given peer that their trust might actually be a negative number?
- Consider how developing appropriate accommodations and modifications change this equation. Accomods by Action Driven Education provides hundreds of solutions that support a student past their disability producing confidence and trust!