Risk vs Reward – Lessons from the Road

Open road

I spent a few hours this afternoon driving the nearly 200km from Sydney to Bathurst for a day of work in a Bathurst school tomorrow. As I crossed the Blue Mountains and went past Lithgow, the roads open up a little and there are longer, straighter faster stretches of road. On one particularly long straight stretch of road I noticed that my steering wheel hung ever so slightly to the right even though I was driving in a straight line. It wasn’t enough to really bother me, but I started to wonder why it was like that and what it would take to fix it so the steering wheel was perfectly neutral while driving in a straight line. I’m sure the reason had something to do with the camber of the road, and I realised that I do in fact have some level of understanding of how a vehicle’s steering system works. How did I know this? As I pondered the question I remembered back to my very first car and how I had – on several occasions – pulled the steering wheel off and put it back on again.

VW Type 3You might be wondering what caused me to remove and replace the steering wheel on my car.  I mean, who does that? As I tried to remember the reason for why I would be disassembling parts of my car, it dawned on me that I used to take that old 1970 Volkswagen Type III apart and put it back to together again not because there was anything wrong with it, but simply because I could. Yes, I used to pull things apart on that car and put them back together again just for the fun of it and to try to understand how things worked.

There were many times where I pulled my VW apart and couldn’t figure out how to put it back together, and it was off the road for a few days until I could work it out. Back then, that didn’t seem like a big deal. And the value in learning how my car worked seemed a small price to pay for the inconvenience of having it off the road temporarily.  Since the VW I’ve had several other cars that I’ve been quite willing to pull apart and try to put back together, simply because I wanted to know how they worked. Engines, gearboxes, diffs… I’ve had all these things in pieces just because I was curious about what was inside and how things worked.

As I drove along in my current car, a 2015 Mitsubishi ASX, I pondered the prospect of pulling the steering wheel off and putting it back on again, adjusting it by one spline and wondering if that might fix my steering wheel’s droop to the right. As I thought about doing this, I realised that I honestly wouldn’t attempt it on the Mitsubishi, not only because it was probably way more complex than my old VW, but it was more likely to be an expensive repair if I messed it up.  Could I work out how to remove and replace the steering wheel on my current car? Sure. But would I? Nah, probably not.

And I got to thinking about why that is. I’m still a curious person and I still like to know how things work. But the idea of taking my 2015 ASX apart and putting it back together again – for fun – is just not something I’d consider, even though I’ve done it to several of the cars I’ve owned over the years.

What was different? As I thought about this, I wondered if it was the fact that the newer and more expensive the car, the less inclined I would be to tinker with it just for fun. My ASX cost about $26,000. My first VW cost $800.  There was a lot less to lose with the VW if I got it wrong.

This got me thinking about the learning process and about the balance between risk and reward. Unless you are prepared to take the risk of breaking something, you’re probably not going to reap the reward of learning. I don’t really know exactly how the steering wheel on my ASX works because I’ve not attempted to pull it apart, and so I will probably remain fairly ignorant of its inner workings. That’s just a risk vs reward situation I’m going to accept for now. This car is simply too expensive if I fuck it up.

As a teacher, over the years I’ve done a lot of great projects with kids. Some have been amazingly successful and have dramatically changed the way I think about the teaching and learning process. And some have been total disasters. But the value for me as a teacher – as a teacher who wants to continually be getting better at what I do – comes from being willing to take that risk that even if things don’t work out, the value of what I learn from trying makes it worthwhile anyway.

For several years I worked in a fancy high-falutin private school. I won’t say that I was being completely risk averse during my time there, but I also don’t think I took as many big gambles and tried as many radical things as I once would have, simply because the stakes were a little higher if I happened to mess it up. This school had a reputation to protect, demanding parents to keep happy, and there were more policy-driven hoops to jump through to really try outrageous ideas. By contrast, I’ve worked in several schools that had far less to lose, and in those schools it was always much easier to try new ideas because it didn’t matter so much whether they worked or not. Most of the best innovation seems to come from situations where failing is most definitely an option.

It’s nice to be well resourced and have great facilities. But you can do an awful lot of great stuff in a school with very limited resources. You don’t need a lot of money or resources or fancy facilities to be innovative and try new ideas. You just need to be willing to try stuff, and to not worry about whether it works or not.

The other things that struck me as I thought about this idea is that some of the cheapest, shittiest cars I’ve ever owned – the ones I had no issue pulling apart and tinkering with – are the ones that gave me the fondest memories and the deepest emotional attachment. The last few cars I’ve owned have been brand new, reasonably expensive, “nice” cars, but I have very little emotional attachment to them at all. They are just transport. Yes they are comfortable, reliable and pleasant to drive, but that’s about it. The cars I’ve loved owning the most over the years were mostly second-hand, cheap, with lots of quirky flaws yet I look back at the experiences they gave me with such great memories and the knowledge that they even shaped me as a person.  I see some parallels with the classroom there too.

Sometimes you can put that steering wheel back after you pull it apart, and sometimes you can’t. The point is not that everything you do needs to work. The real point is that everything you do should be an opportunity to be a better learner.

Life is Risky

Silly me. I was mowing the lawn the other day and I stupidly managed to get my big toe caught in the mower blade while it was running at full speed.  The blades ripped right through my shoe and mangled the tip of my big toe.  Needless to say, it really hurt! I was home on my own, and had to figure out what to do next… there was blood going all over the place, I felt myself going into shock, as I tried to figure out how to get myself to a doctor.  It was not a lot of fun. The good news is that despite smashing my toenail off and slicing the end of my big toe, it could have been a hell of a lot worse.  Fortunately, the bone was not broken and I still have all my toes so apart from a bit of pain and inconvenience I think I’m pretty lucky.

It highlighted to me – in a very real way – that lawnmowers are bloody dangerous things! With their sharp, rapidly rotating blades, they are obviously capable of doing some real damage to the human body. Naturally, I never intended to get my toe in the way of the blades, but it happened regardless.

So I ask the question… are lawnmowers simply too damn dangerous? Does having an accident like this mean I should get rid of the mower and never mow the lawn again? Should I be campaigning for all mowers to be banned, as I am now clearly able to prove that they are dangerous things capable of causing serious injury.  Should my local council be stepping in and confiscating the lawnmowers of my neighbours in order to ensure that nobody else can ever have a similar accident?

The answer to the these questions is obviously no. While mowing your lawn can be a potentially dangerous activity, full of inherent risks and sharp rotating blades, it’s still something that needs to be done, and is done, by people all over the world every weekend.  Of course, mower manufacturers do what they can to limit the risks; the rotor is covered by a large protective guard so the blades are not directly exposed to fingers and toes. Within reason, lawnmowers are designed to be as safe as possible, but no design is 100% failsafe.  There are still significant risks, in fact over 60,000 people are injured by lawnmowers each year in the US alone, and many of these injuries result in amputation.  With such obvious dangers posed by lawnmowers, I can only assume that people must enjoy the value of having a nice looking lawn more than they are worried about the risks of using a mower to get one.

I’m pondering these ideas and thinking how they apply to the way most schools treat potential risks for their students.  While educators have a clear duty-of-care obligation to protect our students, we also have to balance that with the need to allow them to learn and to grow and to have opportunities.  Without being given a chance to fail and to make mistakes, they are missing valuable opportunities to learn from those mistakes. I think there has to be a balance between exposing them to risks and providing them with responsibilities.

Clearly, if the risk is a physical one that could cause genuine harm, injury or even death, then we need to err on the side of caution. If a student is likely to be injured or hurt then, yes, we probably need to place greater emphasis on protecting them from risk than providing a learning opportunity.  But if the risks are minimal, statistically unlikely, or have a relatively minor negative impact, then I think we should be encouraging our students to take a few risks and benefit from the possible opportunities.  You can’t live a life where you let the potential risks override the potential opportunities; if you do you’ll miss far too many wonderful opportunities.

I got thinking about this as I read through the comments on my previous post.  That post was about treating students with enough trust and respect to assume they will make good decisions for themselves if we provide them with enough opportunities to do so, and I finished that post by asking the question “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”  A couple of commenters pointed out that bad things certainly COULD happen if we don’t protect our students, and so we should continue protecting them by filtering, blocking and limiting access to web content that might be seen as “bad”.  As usual, the discussion revolved around the “what if we get sued for letting our children see/do/experience things that aren’t ‘safe’?” line of reasoning.  While I agree we need to keep kids safe, I think that this the wrong reason for wanting to do it.  Deciding what we will or won’t do based on whether we might get sued for it is simply an awful way to go through life.

You know what? We can try to protect ourselves from risk for the rest of our lives. We can avoid doing anything remotely dangerous, just in case we get hurt.  We can wrap ourselves in cotton wool, cloistering ourselves away from anything we might find bad, distasteful, dangerous, offensive or disagreeable. We can live a life where we reduce all potential risk by avoiding all potential dangers, but in the process we miss far too many potential opportunities and I’d question whether that’s really actually living.

Many years ago I read the following poem by Kent M Keith that very much struck a chord with me.  I think it nicely captures what I’ve been trying to say in this post…

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.  Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.  Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.  Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.  Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.  Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.
  9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.  Help people anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.  Give the world the best you have anyway.

Oh, and I’d probably add number 11.  Mowers are dangerous. Mow the lawn anyway.

I think we owe it to ourselves – and our students – to create a life of true significance, where we decide to do things because they make our lives richer and more meaningful. It’s a very sad state of affairs when we start deciding what we will allow into our lives based on whether we might get hurt or offended or sued.

Yes, life is risky. Live it anyway.

Image Credit: Chris Betcher – CC BY-SA-NC

Wrapped in Cotton Wool

As a parent, it’s a fine line we walk sometimes in knowing where the boundaries are for your kids. We want to protect them from danger and shield them from hurt. At the same time, we need to allow them to experience the world and learn to interact with it in meaningful ways. This paradox of safety versus experience is a tricky balance to get right, but I’m convinced that we are probably the most overprotective generation of parents in history. A recent post here listed a number of tongue-in-cheek example of how much we seem to overreact to things that would have been much less of a drama a few years ago. How many of you went out playing all day when you were a kid, and the only rule was to be home by dark? No “Call me when you get there to let me know you arrived ok”… just “Bye dear, have fun playing!”

This video from the TED Talks series, called “5 Dangerous Things you should let your Children do” makes a similar observation that maybe we need to just lighten up a bit on our kids. Take a look…

In our schools I find we are developing the same, if not worse, overprotective behaviours. My last school insisted on having staff members walking the children across the road after school (it’s a high school!) – I found this laughable… we have them in class all day teaching them to be mature and independent thinkers and then we won’t let them cross a street without assistance. Our excursion (field trip) program became impossibly hard to work with over the past few years due to all the excessive safety regulations and the need to “guarantee” a safe environment outside the school. You can never get a total guarantee that a situation will be 100% safe – of course you want it to be as safe as possible – but when you start to compromise the creation of situations and environments in which to learn because there may be a small risk involved… I don’t know, that just seems silly to me. Life has sharp edges. Deal with it.

No one wants to see children get hurt, that’s for certain. Regardless of whether your role is that of teacher or parent, I’m sure we all want to see our children stay safe. My own daughter was bitten on the face by a dog a few years ago and the feeling of sheer panic and distress I felt as a parent as I looked down as the blood streaming out of the huge gash torn in her cheek was an indescribable anguish. But would I say to her to now stay away from all dogs? No way. She loves dogs. She’s fallen off a bike and skinned her leg a few times, but that doesn’t mean she should never ride a bike again. In the process of living, sometimes you’ll get a bit knocked around. That, quite literally, is life.

Kids – just like adults – need to occasionally go through some of the painful parts of life if they are to experience the wonder of what it means to live.