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  • Joe Haig

Advance Australia Scared

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

A recent Infosys Digital Radar survey ranked Australians at the bottom of the heap when it came to taking risks. The survey of 9000 people aged between 16 and 25, included Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Are we too cautious for our own good? Our future economic development will be heavily driven by innovation. The formula for innovation is idea + risk + hard work. Fortune favours the bold and you can't innovate and move forward without exposure to risk. Risk is good.

Education policy makers understand that we need to be strategic about our future, and that this will involve innovation. The overarching idea in the National Science and Technology Curriculum is "creating preferred futures". Many teachers, though, find it difficult to convey to children the way risk is intrinsically linked to reward and to provide them with opportunities to develop risk tolerance.

Risk aversion is deeply embedded into our school system - schools have been engineered to minimise exposure to risk. Not just in terms of their physical arrangement and curriculum, but in their staffing and organisational structure. All of the teachers I know came into the profession for the best reasons. However, teaching is a very "safe" job that tends to attract risk averse personality types. New teaching graduates enter a rigid, heavily unionised, government funded work environment. In an age of liability and litigation, risky activities must be approved by executive staff, with a justification provided for the activity.

I remember organising a camp for a group of primary school students. A parent objected to a proposed activity on the grounds that it was "dangerous and unnecessary." She was correct, but wrong at the same time, because most of the activities that make us feel alive are dangerous and unnecessary. All the safe and necessary activities are boring - nobody gets a buzz out of vacuuming the floor or washing the car. Pretty much all the fun stuff is dangerous and unnecessary. As Mark Twain pointed out, "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." Not only is risk good, it's fun.

How can we be intentional about building risk opportunities into school life - and allow children to participate in those wonderful "dangerous and unnecessary" activities?

Teach Risk

Use the language of risk in the classroom. Encourage children to weigh probability and make informed risks and help them understand the relationship between risk and reward. Ask "What's the worst thing that could happen?" and challenge children to face their fears.

Incremental risk exposure

Start small - build up risk tolerance from a young age. There's plenty of research around play and one of the benefits of physical play is that it teaches children to manage risk.

School camps

Most school camp facilities provide an environment where students can feel the thrill of taking a risk, and the pride and intrinsic reward that accompanies the feeling of success. Activities like rock climbing and abseiling allow children to push themselves.

Sport and games

Sport teacher students life skills and helps them develop character traits that are difficult to acquire in the classroom - things like perseverance and resilience - which they can then transfer to other areas of their school life. Games, especially those involving probability, are great too.

Entrepreneurial programs

Programs like "$20 Boss" give children the opportunity to "risk it for the biscuit". It's not just about financial risk either, but exposing entrepreneurial and creative ideas to possible criticism. Children need to develop the courage to bring their ideas and dreams out into the daylight and share them with others.

Public speaking and debating

These activities force children to expand their comfort zones and risk judgement and feedback from their peers but the reward of delivering a point, of influencing hearts and minds and making a difference, is worth it.

It's not too late! Let's push the envelope. What's the worst thing that could happen? Whatever it is, it's not as bad as becoming a nanny state full of helicopter parents whirring around their bubble wrapped offspring.


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