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Encouraging Risk Taking

STRATEGY: Model and value risk taking to achieve the articulated vision for teaching and learning.

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.” —Neil Gaiman

Individuals with a fixed mindset often believe that failure is a sign of intellectual inferiority or weakness, making risk taking a high-stakes endeavor where failure can be crushing. Yet learning and growth require intellectual risk taking. Avoiding risk limits opportunities to learn, grow, and innovate in ways that will help students and a school achieve designated goals. Schools and leaders that do not embrace risk can find themselves in danger of stagnating and making little progress toward achieving the school’s vision. School leaders have an obligation to model a growth mindset for students, teachers, and other staff members by taking risks that demonstrate a willingness to learn and grow from both successes and failures.


Solid planning is at the foundation of intentional risk taking. Strategic school leaders take risks that hold the promise of significant benefits and minimize drawbacks. The process for determining risks to take and avoid should begin by setting clear goals based on the school’s vision for teaching and learning. The next step is to brainstorm policies, practices, and activities that can be implemented to achieve the goals. Brainstormed ideas then can be analyzed, considering factors such as feasibility, cost, likelihood of success, overall benefits, and inherent risks.

It is valuable to bring representatives from different members of the school community into the process at this point (or earlier) to hear a diversity of viewpoints. Comparing results of this analysis with criteria and constraints based on the school’s vision can narrow the list of possible choices. Ultimately, a strategy (or suite of strategies) can be chosen that present the greatest chance for accomplishing the stated goals. Once new strategies are implemented, data gathering and analysis of results are necessary to determine whether the chosen strategy is working.

Communication is critical at all stages of this process. Not only does communication provide transparency to the process, it also models strategic risk taking in a way that teachers can follow when performing their own action research or engaging in professional learning communities. This should be a two-way form of communication; it is important for stakeholders to hear from leaders about new efforts and for leaders to receive feedback from those affected by changes.

First Steps to Consider

  • Determine whether the school has a clearly articulated vision for teaching and learning. If one does not exist or is not clear, develop, clarify, and communicate the vision.
  • Set goals to accomplish the vision. Goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time limited) and limited in number. Too many initiatives can doom their success. It may be helpful to brainstorm a list of goals and then narrow the list.
  • Share goals with stakeholders to get feedback. Identify representatives who are interested in participating in the planning process.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Building buy in from stakeholders and managing the change process are two steps that often are overlooked. When a school leader takes a risk by choosing a new policy, practice, or activity, there many other people are involved who must also take a risk in implementing the idea. It is critical for leaders to follow through on decision-making to ensure that new strategies are embraced and implemented to the best of everyone’s ability. This may require additional training for staff members or new materials for students. On the part of the school leader, this requires a significant amount of listening to those who work directly with the change.

Risk inherently contains the chance of failure. Successful leaders are open and honest about how things are going and are humble enough to accept that a given choice may not ultimately work in the end.

Common pitfalls

  • Lack of vision. Without a clear vision, individual strategies may be successful but not amount to a greater whole.
  • Poor planning. A strategy chosen without thinking it through is unlikely to succeed.
  • Punishing failure. When risks do not turn out well, it does not mean they were not worth taking. If mistakes are punished, the incentive to take future risks diminishes severely.
  • Failing to evaluate. Collecting data and analyzing results are necessary to tweak strategies and make future decisions.

Guiding Questions

  • How does the strategy help to achieve the school’s overall vision?
  • What are major risks inherent in the strategy?
  • How can risks of the strategy be minimized without undermining the strategy itself?
  • Who should be involved in decision-making about this strategy?
  • How will decisions be communicated to the school community?
  • How will the strategy be evaluated?