I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list of characteristics associated with creativity that didn’t include some version of “risk taking.” Creativity, by its nature, requires going beyond the norm and trying something new—always an endeavor that requires some risk. Most creativity doesn’t involve physical risk but it does require risking looking foolish, being thought strange, or, in some cases, risk to professional reputation or standing. One study that examined the types of risk taking associated with creativity studied five domains of risk taking: financial, health and safety, recreational, ethical and social. Only risk taking in the social domain was associated with measures of creativity. I will admit to breathing a small sigh of relief to learn that working to be more creative doesn’t entail risking my retirement savings or breaking my legs!
If we want to help students develop the kinds of risk taking that support creativity, we don’t have to encourage them to do skateboard tricks or climb Mt. Everest. While some kinds of creativity do entail physical risk taking—the Wright brothers, for example—most of the time that is not our goal for students. Rather, we need to help them have the courage to move forward when they are unsure, braving the potential judgments of peers (and teachers). At the same time, we must work to create a classroom in which all of us work to become less judgmental of the risk taking of others.
One way to help students distinguish helpful from potentially dangerous risk-taking is to study the times creative people have moved forward in their work despite feeling unsure or unaccepted. Stories of such ventures abound. Van Goch kept painting when no one want to buy his work. J.K. Rowling was rejected by a series of publishers before finding someone who would print Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Frances Oldham Kelsey risked her career with the FDA and her reputation when she would not back down on her analysis of the risks of the supposedly-safe drug thalidomide. It would be interesting to have students analyze the potential risks that were faced by inventors, artists, or entrepreneurs featured in local newspapers or online coverage.
Another way to support student risk taking is to monitor our responses to unexpected student comments or problem solving. It can be tempting to respond to deviations from expected response with a reminder to follow directions. If we pause, just for a moment, and think about the student’s intent, sometimes our response might be, “Linda, I hadn’t thought about this that way,” and “Class, notice how Linda took a smart risk here. She wasn’t sure how I’d respond to a project done in this way, but she thought it was a good creative idea, and it was.” Other times, if the effort really was off base, we could respond, “George, that was a different idea and you were brave to try to make it work that way. The problem is that it didn’t accomplish X or Y. . .. “ George’s idea didn’t work, but his effort and risk taking was acknowledged.
A classroom that supports risk-taking is a place where is it OK to be different. It is OK to express an interest in robotics or opera or learning Latin. It is safe to express a different opinion, wear different clothes, or eat lunch foods others aren’t familiar with. Making our classrooms those safe spaces is at the heart of education–even if we have to take some of our own risks to do it,