Taking risks... with new tasks and demonstrations


In the second of her series on risk-taking in the classroom, Nadine Pittam discusses ideas for pushing the boundaries when introducing and demonstrating or modelling tasks.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the opposite of risk is safety. People like safety. Teachers like safety. It is the fear of stepping outside this safety which stops us taking risks.

But without risk we would never experience adventure; there would be no creativity, no innovation; we would never act on inspiration. Our students would never over-achieve.

With increased risk comes increased need for control. Nobody is advocating anarchy. Not all our students will enjoy free-falling through a task, so it is essential that we have things under control and assure them the lesson is well-planned and that we intend to take them through a carefully orchestrated process.

We may not be able to guarantee they will find the challenges easy or comfortable, but we should always be able to guarantee that their lesson is safe and thoroughly planned. 

Change the order of things

One way to take a risk (and to ask our students to take risks) is to ask them to attempt the task before we show them how to do it.

Benefits of taking this risk: Students are much more focused during the demonstration, and they have already learned so much from their own attempt.

Conquerable concerns: They will think I haven’t planned my lesson. They will fail; they will get it wrong (these two things are only a problem if we want to develop a culture of first-time-perfect).

How can it be used? Let’s look outside our classrooms to revisit Professor Barry Hymer’s F.A.I.L theory, which swept through schools last year. His message, based on Professor Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset research, is as fresh now as it was then. He professes that failure is rarely bad (unless you are a skydiver, or someone wanting to teach how to use a circular saw).

The failing is just the student’s First Attempt In Learning (FAIL). We should not only allow our students to make mistakes but we should also positively encourage it. If you have not yet seen the video clip Austin’s Butterfly, it is well worth watching with half your mind on which of your classes and which task this process of on-going revision could be used for.

Imagine, then, that you have encouraged your students to attempt a task without you having first demonstrated explicitly what to do. Your students may be resistant or feel angry and unsupported during this task, but you will have encouraged them and reassured them that you have planned it this way on purpose.

Either during or after this attempt, ask them to note down what they thought or felt while they were working. Only then, once they have had a go, do you model how you might approach the task. Why do it this way? Because once each student has attempted the task, they have a hook on which to hang the information you are giving them during the demonstration.

We can use an arbitrary example of cake decoration to explain this (but you could use this when teaching your students anything from essay-writing to perspective-drawing). You ask them to make icing for, then decorate a simple Hallowe’en cake. If they attempt the decoration first some might manage to get the consistency of the icing right but they might not be able to control the flow from the nozzle of the piping bag; or maybe they can draw with icing the concentric circles of a spider’s web but not know how to drag a point outwards from the centre to get the web effect. 

Once they have had a go and succeeded and failed at different aspects, their attention will be keenly focused on the bit they couldn’t do the first time.

Let students plan the scheme of work

Another expected approach to teaching and learning is that you, the teacher, are the one who plans, and they, the students, are the ones who do. Again, that works well most of the time. But what if you asked the students to plan the scheme of work?

Benefits of taking this risk: Students are much more invested in the lessons that follow. They look forward to “their” lesson(s). You might be inspired by their ideas...

Conquerable concerns: Maybe the students won’t understand the assessment criteria you are going to give them? What if they miss important aspects of learning?

How can it be used? You could ask your students to plan the scheme of work, to plan the activities. Your control comes not from you telling them what they need to know but you giving them all the resources they need to be able to put together a primitive scheme of work themselves.

Your role is to ensure they have planned for all the skills or knowledge and to mix their ideas into one coherent scheme, adding detail where necessary, ensuring that you credit each student or group with their suggestions whenever possible. Imagine you do this with a class who have to write a film review for coursework. You give students:

  • Examples of published reviews with a few notes to point them in the right direction (Professor John Hattie calls these “worked examples”).

  • Simplified versions of the mark scheme against which their work will ultimately be assessed.

  • A (perhaps simplified?) scheme of work for a similar writing task.

  • A choice of appropriate films.

  • Lots of scrap paper and pens.

  • A piece of “best” A1 paper on which to record their final ideas.

Students then set about creating four weeks of lessons which would guide them to producing a final review. Students submit their A1 sheets to you and you use their ideas to create one scheme which includes and credits as many of their ideas as possible (and maybe includes few additional ones which they had missed). Each student gets a copy of the scheme to follow as the unit progresses.

Let students choose which demonstration

Benefits of taking this risk: Your students can choose the approach which they think suits them (though they may not always make the right choice first time and may have to switch between “stations”). Your resources can be built upon year-on-year. Many of Prof Hattie’s (Visible Learning, 2009) bigger effect sizes come from using these aspects in your teaching: motivation, reciprocal teaching, providing worked examples, using meta-cognitive strategies.

Conquerable concerns: There is a lot of planning. What if they don’t understand the mark scheme or assessment criteria? What if they mess about?

How can it be used? Provide students with a variety of introductions and demonstrations from which they can choose the one most suitable to them. Below are some more ways you can introduce or demonstrate how to do a task; give your students the choice of one, or all, of them.

  • They watch a pre-recorded video, made either by you or by their peers (from your class or a colleague’s class). If you have to model a complicated technique, ask one of them to film or audio-record you doing it then upload that film or podcast to the virtual learning environment or shared area so the students can access it when they need to refocus on something. With risk comes trust, so let them access the video in lessons on iPads or (gasp) on their mobile phones.

  • You (or other students) make an “Explain Everything” video tutorial. Explain Everything is a powerful yet intuitive app which can be used to create video tutorials or presentations. Ask students to make one of these at the end of a unit you do this year so that your class next year have them ready to use.

  • Students form a small group and try to work it out among themselves.

  • Students choose to visit the librarian. The librarian, because you have planned with them in advance, has ready a series of books or websites for the students to study.

  • Give students the opportunity to read sequenced written instructions which you (or another class) has prepared in advance.

  • You give students modelled examples of the finished product – with or without annotated points.

  • They watch and listen to you modelling in the conventional sense (or perhaps you could ask a peer from another class to come and model it if they have done it in a previous lesson).


We expect our students to take risks all the time: to answer questions in front of their peers, to attempt a task they are almost certain they will struggle with or even fail at, to attempt an activity they are not completely confident about. 

We do not expect our students to play it safe; we should not expect it of ourselves either.

  • Nadine Pittam is founder and director of the skills-based website of teaching ideas, www.spark-ed.co.uk

Photo: iStock


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