A better future: one small risk at a time


Echoing, reverberating, stretched silence suffocates the classroom. Everyone stares blankly at the teacher who has just asked a question. Eyes dart, searching vainly for a savior, a single hand raised. The answer bubbles up inside of me like the lava forcing through the center of a volcano. The pressure builds and I am ready to blow. I am going to pop like a balloon, my hand is going to shoot up. But then, a quiet needle pokes a small hole in my confidence and I slowly deflate. What if I get the question wrong?

The palms of my hands start to sweat. Everyone will think I am dumb, that I do not belong in the class. The teacher asks the question again, and again the room responds with silence. I look into the faces of my classmates now, eyes all mirroring the same panic, screaming ‘don’t call on me,’ ‘don’t call on me.’ I am not the only one who knows the answer. I am not the only one afraid to take the risk no matter if it ends in success.

Our school environment should focus more on celebrating mistakes, learning, and academic risk taking instead of solely achievement. Less emphasis should be put on grades, and we should honor the courage of risk takers and how the chances that they take result in learning.

According to Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, in school, natural talent is praised more than those who work hard, take chances, and make mistakes. This all begins in elementary school when teachers make groups in class depending on their assessment of academic level. When children ask too many questions or take a chance that results in a mistake, they are automatically labeled as not as smart or intelligent,which makes them not want to make this same mistake in the future. On the other hand, when children are labeled by their teachers as “gifted,” they are often are crippled by a fear of failure that prevents them from asking questions and taking risks in class.  The group of students who continue to take chances, regardless of  the number of obstacles that they face, learn more than those who are originally marked as naturally “gifted”.

The brain actually grows larger with every mistake made. According to a study conducted by psychologist Jason Moser, every time we make a mistake, a synapse, or electrical signal in the brain caused by learning, fires.

“The brain sparks and grows when we make a mistake, even if we are not aware of it, because it is a time of struggle,” Stanford University Professor Jo Boaler said. “The brain is challenged, and the challenge results in growth.”

Then why does school culture not push for students to step so far outside of their comfort zone that they make mistakes? In elementary school, classes are split up based on level, and in middle school class participation drops even more when grades are added into the equation. In high school, participation finally increases because students are more mature. However, the fear of taking a gamble and possibly being labeled as unintelligent is illustrated through grades. Students focus on grades, or the outcome, instead of learning.

Additionally, this fear is still apparent in classroom participation and in the student class selection process. The go-to question for advice about which classes to take are not, “is it interesting?” but are instead, “is it hard?” The college system of selecting students based on their GPA limits a student’s ability to step out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves by taking a difficult course that interests them. They might not receive their desired grade in the course, but at least they will be learning and experimenting. Students may thrive and overcome obstacles that they never knew they were capable of accomplishing if they had not taken the risk.

I understand that not all students feel this way in the classroom. Many enjoy participating and care more about how fascinating a subject is instead of how easy it is to earn a desirable grade. They thrive because they take risks and value their mistakes, in the same way as their successes. I just wish that all students felt the same way, and I think that we can create an environment where this is the case. We can start by simply encouraging participation, and acknowledging when something feels outside of our comfort zone.

According to Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.” If you never take a risk, you will never lose, but you will also never have the opportunity to succeed. Henry Ford’s early businesses failed leaving him broke five times before one of them succeeded. Charles Darwin gave up on his medical profession to travel halfway across the world on a research expedition that his father said was that of a simple dreamer. These are just some examples of the people who achieved groundbreaking feats that would not have even been possible if they had not taken risks to get there. The school culture should encourage risk taking when learning in the classroom, in order for high schoolers to succeed in the long run.