SCUBA and the Art of Academic Risk-taking

A week ago, my wife did something I don’t think either of us thought she would ever do; she went scuba diving.  As the designated risk taker in the family, I tend to give just about anything a go – skydiving, rock climbing, dodgy food stalls in the alleys of Bangkok, but my wife has, let’s call it, a more well-developed sense of risk/reward analysis.  Since I love to try new things, she got me PADI dive certificate training for Christmas a year or so ago.  My friend signed up too and we took the course together.  Between the poor weather, rough seas, and a crowded class, it ended up being a less than pleasant experience.  We spent nine hours in the water on a Saturday, and then fought really rough seas for our boat dive the next day.  By the time we finished, we were both certified divers, but neither of us was in a hurry to dive again.

So, when my wife and I vacationed in Fiji this summer I signed up for a one-tank dive at a little island we were spending the day at.  When we arrived, the young lady running the dive shack handed us both release forms.  She assured my wife what a great experience it would be to go with her, and told her how much she loved guiding people through their first dive experience.  From there, she sat with my wife and told her she always started by having a new diver share a little about their life and then she would share about hers, so they would kind of know each other before they went in the water.  Then she carefully explained how the equipment worked, let my wife look it over and try it on and try breathing through the respirator, etc.  Then they waded into the gentle surf, and she took my wife by the arm, pulled her close, and they were off on her first dive.  I was so proud of her for taking the risk and giving it a try.  And it went great.  She excitedly told me about the fish she saw, and how her dive lady held her arm close and made sure she was comfortable the whole way.  It was a chance for her to push her boundaries a little and experience something more wonderful than she imagined.  My dive went amazingly well too, by the way.

Risk is an interesting thing.  If we are too risk averse we can miss out on things, too afraid to give it a try.  Too daring, on the other hand, and we can end up suffering the consequences of unnecessary, and foolish risks.  This is where a good guide can make all the difference.  In my wife’s case, her dive guide took care of her, making sure she was able to get outside her comfort zone but still maintain the level of comfort necessary to enjoy the experience – much different from my certification course.  As teachers, we have the chance to do this with students too.  We have the opportunity to push them outside their comfort zones and experience things they might never try on their own.  It is so important for us to manage these experiences by providing the appropriate level of support.  This doesn’t mean we have to ensure everything is fun, comfortable, and successful, but it does mean we are there to provide the appropriate encouragement and feedback and support students need to either be successful or deal with a lack of success.  We need to encourage them to learn from failure and try again.  We need to build an environment where students know it is safe to take a few educational risks in order to experience new success.

I think we can learn a lot from my wife’s first dive experience.  If we want our students to take academic risks they need to feel like they know their teachers and are known by them.  They need to know their classroom and school community supports them.  It is also important for us to model how to approach risk-taking in the classroom.  Sharing personal stories and continually reinforcing that making mistakes is part of the learning process can help students see that it is ok to take risks of their own.  It is also important to allocate some time to make sure our students understand the tools they will need to access academic content and further develop academic skills.  If we skip this step and dive right into content learning, some students may not really be armed with the use of the very tools they need to be successful. Finally, throughout the learning process, our students need to see us and feel us there beside them as supporting guides intent on their growth and success, not distant judges waiting to catch them when they mess up.  When we attend to these things, we begin to build classrooms where students are willing to wade into deep water and take the necessary academic risks to really grow and experience exciting new frontiers.

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