The Risk Free Classroom

risk.jpgDoes risk to students trump learning? Perceived risk, slight risk, possible risk - is risk something to be avoided in the classroom at all when it comes to using internet based technologies? This summary paragraph from Al Upton's Update No.3 is really making me think:

A number of analogies were presented … many stating any risk to students negates learning entering the debate. I raised the “To avoid students drowning, we teach them to swim” analogy - authentic learning.
One response ‘If something bad can happen to even one child it shouldn’t be done’ – paraphrased

I know that this idea of any risk being unacceptable can be turned onto other examples of school today and found to be blatantly untrue. How about playground equipment? I've been at schools where an ambulance has been called twice in a week for suspected broken arms and other injuries caused by slips or falls from the equipment. Why hasn't all play equipment been banned and closed down? If one child could slip and possibly fall with injurious consequences, then there is risk. But the benefits of the playground far outweigh the negatives - the learning, the gaining of skills, the creation of games and the friendship of playing with your mates. And we are careful with the playground environment - no sharp edges, designs that cater for a variety of skill levels, soft fall on the ground, rules for safe play, teacher supervision - so that the risks are managed and lead to beneficial learning of physical skills.

Why would we treat the risks regarding, say, the use of blogs in the classroom any differently? Why do risks associated with technology seem to be so threatening that shutting down and banning is seen as the appropriate way to deal with it? And are those responsible for recommending or enforcing these methods really in touch with real or perceived risks?

I have this sneaking feeling that a risk free classroom might also be a learning-lite classroom.

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12 thoughts on “The Risk Free Classroom

  1. David

    I figure that this whole storm is based on ignorance and fear. The ultimate learning environment for our students, based on the fear and risk aversion model, is solitary confinement in a padded cell, nothing can get you there, even your spirit will be crushed. Just think of it, no sharp edges, no bulying, delivery of content, out of context that we deem fit for your consumption and no chance of meeting the more undesirable elements of the playground heirarchy. Perfect! Dull yes, safe yes! The challenge to us all is to throw light into the closed and darkened minds of those that took this precipitous action in the first place. As they say in Galaxy Quest, “Never give up, never surrender!”

  2. Graham Hughes

    Every Monday morning my senior class would be littered with crutches, neck braces and elastic bandages as the 1st XV heroes returned from their latest sporting battles.
    We also had cadets falling off abseiling ropes, twisting ankles and suffering various ailments associated with lugging heavy backpacks up steep hills. All in the name of “making men” of them.

    I assume therefore that this will see an end to all forms of school sport and outward bound activities. Indeed perhaps we had best ensure that parents have signed a waiver before we even allow their children to enter our dangerous school grounds. What a load of utter nonsense! It would seem that the beaurocrats are digging themselves into a very deep hole.

  3. warrick

    I agree with David; it’s basically ignorance. Not understanding, and not willing to learn. And fear. Fear of any risk-taking despite the educational gains, fear of litigation, fear of being the first to make changes.

    It’s sad, but I don’t expect a a lot more from people who are administrators, not educational leaders.

  4. Charlie A. Roy

    I think fear has much to do with the resistance but then again the excuse of fear is a crutch to avoid change. If you can keep offering up excuses to avoid the integration of technology you can keep delaying having to change.

    I like to equate the fear of outside influences on blogging to that off receiving advertisements through the fax machine. If you don’t like it throw it out. If you don’t like a comment then delete it or send all comments to moderation first.

  5. Bill Kerr

    the trend in playground equipment towards has also been towards less risk, making slides less high and plastic rather than steel etc.

    also it’s not clear how much weight should be given to a paraphrased response by one person – although such remarks are bad for the spirit they don’t necessarily represent the department consensus or the final policy decision (although they might, nothing would surprise me)

    the fear / ignorance analysis can be challenged too (needs more discussion) -> it is far easier to access p*rn through the internet than in earlier media, in fact, it sometimes happens accidentally (search for fox and find foxy lady)

    it’s natural for people to want to move from a higher risk state to a lower risk state – and so that appeal will normally have majority support from parents – it’s hard to fight against it, it does represent a real trend in society

    I think what needs to be done is to distinguish b/w a pragmatic approach to risk (good idea, wear seat belts) and an ideological approach to risk – the idealistic goal of a risk free society. The risk free society just does not stand up at all. How did we even get to a place where people even contemplate that safety considerations trump everything else? Some authors have addressed this larger question directly, eg. search for Furedi + fear for some good articles.

    irony – my post was rejected because it contained the p*rn word LOL

  6. Bill Kerr

    improvement of this part of my previous comment: “the idealistic goal of a risk free society”

    better to express this as opposition to the strong version of the precautionary principle – possibly no one actually argues for a risk free society, the real problem is the precautionary principle

    see The Paralyzing Principle

  7. Graham Wegner

    Thanks for all of your comments. I think that Bill’s comment has some points of interest to add to my “thinking as blogging” process. Indeed, playgrounds have become more safe and also with a shorter lifespan in mind by using less durable but more colourful materials – so as a metaphor to represent my ideas, it does have its failings. I was trying to find a school based metaphor rather than the swimming in the ocean or the driving on the road metaphors commonly used – something that would get the reaction along the lines of, “Of course, we would never want playgrounds to be banned in schools!” Except, maybe we are headed in that direction….

    I think that the conversation that decision makers need to consider is that by making our classrooms “internet safe” from outside contact, does that really assist our students in the rest of their real life? I suppose much of school is a simulation and that banning/blocking of anything with potential risk is right in line with the philosophy of school as it is currently constructed. It is just frustrating to think that teaching the concepts of web safety, ethics and responsibility will have to be abstract – an indoor wading pool instead of a surf life saving training session down by the actual ocean – if I indulge in one more metaphor.

    I’ll have to read some Furedi as you suggest tonight.

  8. mseyfang

    Playgrounds have indeed become boring (anyone remember the old ‘Monash Playground’ in the riverland? – it was fun and dangerous). I think that makes the world a worse place.

    In a court of law ‘duty of care’ might trump anything to do with learning outcomes. However, duty of care should be applied to actual risk not perceived risk. That would most likely put the real deaths and harm to kids via (cyber) bullying ahead of the impact of sexual predators. Anyone got real research figures on that?


  9. Bill Kerr

    fang, people died at the Monash playground, although some died with a smile on their face 🙂

    what I’m arguing is that there is a strong social & cultural push in the direction of safety first – there are different ways to combat that

    one is to lampoon it – eg. the TED video that wara points to is called “5 dangerous things you should let your kids do” – the title is provocative although the talk itself is serious and well argued

    another way is to reframe the whole discussion –> I’m thinking that might be more productive, eg. in response to the paraphrased comment: ‘If something bad can happen to even one child it shouldn’t be done’

    I think a good response would be – “what is your philosophy of learning?” That is a reframe from “safety as centre” to “learning as centre”. I’m saying this because I have seen good ideas voted down at staff meetings after the occupational health and safety report documented the risks.

    Garth Boomer once described his learning principles as “design and struggle”. The issue here is struggle, that learning requires struggle and all struggle involves some risk. I’ve seen kids in tears after losing a chess game. If we don’t encourage struggle in learning then we will forever remain at the rote and reception stage – contrast this to meaningful and discovery

    I’m not sure but possibly talk about fear of the unknown as the wrong approach – for some who oppose kids access to the internet it is fear of the known although that is combined with self protection (do what it takes to prevent a parent suing my school) rather than a longer term view of protection of children – since kids will create myspace accounts in their own time anyhow

  10. Pam Thompson

    Hi Graham

    I agree that in order to enable kids to use safe behaviours they have to be exposed to certain risks but in a monitored and safe environment. Surely playgrounds would never have become so safe (and possibly boring 😉 ) if children had been banned from using them because they were at risk of injury. Let’s hope that the current situation leads to sensible guidelines that allow innovative educators to do what they do best – motivate and engage students in authentic learning.

  11. vawnjordan

    I use a discussion board on Blackboard with my 4th and 5th grade students. Almost all of them use this tool very well. I am amazed at their comments and their ability to pose questions to others. But I have one student who is always off the topic, sarcastic, and on the borderline of being inappropriate. So far I have deleted his comments but we are arranging a time to talk. I believe that this is a realtively safe environment for my students to learn to discuss online. It is very motivating and is an opportunity to engae EVERY student.


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