I recently entered five words into Google’s Ngram Viewer: weather, love, sex, money and risk. The Ngram is designed to track the relative frequency of words used in Google’s vast text corpus. I pushed the tool to the limit by asking it to plot the “text history” of these words starting in the year 1500. Well, here are the results.
Not surprisingly, the words love and money have tangled with each other for centuries. (I was able to find occurrences of the phrase, “for love nor money” that dated back to the mid 1700’s).
But what I found most interesting in looking at the Ngram results was the slow, but steady rise of the frequency of the word “risk”. If Google is correct, 1966 marked the year that the English-speaking world began talking about risk more than weather. In 1984, the year I began my teaching career, risk began to overtake sex in terms of single-word frequency. (You may be interested to note that a very sharp rise in the use of the phrase “safe sex” began at almost the same time.)
I believe that the world of education has reflected this apparent increase in talking about risk. At the district level, we talk about risk management. At the school level, security cameras, safe schools and “blacktop recesses” have become commonplace. In principal qualification courses, risk aversion often receives more attention than curriculum leadership. And then there is the whole idea of “at-risk” students!
More recently, we have attempted to thread the idea of risk-taking into our 21st century narratives—sort of. How many times have we heard speakers or authors insist, “We need to make it safe for our students (and educators) to take risks.”
I think that it’s time to unpack the idea of risk, especially as it relates to school, to learning and to the broader idea of education. And that’s precisely what I would like to attempt to do over the next few weeks. I don’t pretend to have all of the intellectual tools to untangle all of the ideas and issues that have become wrapped up in our thinking about risk, but here are a few questions that might serve to get things started:
How do you define/describe risk? What is the role of risk in the learning process? How might we balance the responsibility to protect our children with the desire to let them go? Can the two ideas live side-by-side? Have we become too risk-averse in education?
I would love to get your opening thoughts on some of these questions. I would also appreciate hearing what other questions emerge for you when you think of risk. What other ideas, tensions and opportunities are lurking under the surface? What are you reading, watching or hearing that might enrich and enliven the discussion.
Let’s talk about risk—some more!