Risk-Taking is Essential for Professional Learning

Risk-taking is the make-or-break ingredient of effective professional learning. Without it, we are just going through the motions of “doing professional learning.” We gather ideas and strategies, but none of these impact student learning until we change our teaching in very specific ways to realize new possibilities for kids.

How do we bridge this gap between gathering ideas and transforming how we teach? It’s as easy (and fear inducing) as acting on what we do not know.

There are four important risks we must take to translate professional learning into student learning. We must dare to:

  • Focus on unsolved challenges
  • Seek cognitive dissonance
  • Take imperfect action
  • Engage in inquiry about our impact

Focus on Unsolved Challenges

To gather ideas that will shift how you teach, focus on what you don’t know. What challenges in student learning do you want to address? What aspects of those challenges do you feel least equipped to address? Our uncertainty represents a goldmine for learning. Generate questions at this edge, and let them drive your inquiry forward.

Seek Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is that uncomfortable feeling we experience when we simultaneously hold two ideas that are in conflict with one another. For example, imagine a teacher believes providing students with fill-in-the-blank frames is the most effective way to help struggling writers compose essays. If the teacher learns about the limitations of framed writing, she will experience cognitive dissonance. In a safe environment, cognitive dissonance is a powerful opportunity to explore, reflect on and challenge our own beliefs.   We benefit from this opportunity when we take the risk and feel uncomfortable weighing new ideas against what we think we know.

Take Imperfect Action

Taking action is how we make our professional learning impact student learning.  The problem with acting on new ideas, however, is we don’t know what we are doing well enough to act at the level of our expectations. With no experience applying these new ideas, where do we begin? We fear—often justifiably—that our first attempts will be flawed, and we tell ourselves, “I’m not ready,” or simply “I can’t.”

Avoid the perfection trap by committing to take imperfect action. Start small. Risk trying a new approach with the expectation that you will bumble through it, and learn from what doesn’t work.

Engage in Inquiry about Our Impact

One of the most courageous actions we can take as educators is ownership for student learning. As you apply new learning to your teaching, ask: How are these shifts in instruction impacting student learning? What difference are they making for the unsolved challenges I’m driven to solve? Listen to students. Watch students. Engage with colleagues in planning, observing and reflecting on lessons together. Through this process, dare to pay attention to data, especially when it challenges you to change your mind.

What Risks Will You Take?

Going through the motions of professional learning is a waste of time. Effective professional learning begins when we find our edge, and take risks to shift our perceptions and actions.

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What risks will you take to continue to evolve as an educator?

How do you collaborate with colleagues as courageous learners?


I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.

One Comment

  • Jesus

    December 22, 2015, 8:29 pm

    Loved your slide show! As I begin a new school year teiahcng fifth grade science I am looking for ways to inspire inquiry and investigation. I found your approach inspiring.

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