Towards Risk-Tolerant Learning

Recently, several of us at the AIMS Center have become involved in an online community that is growing out of the just-released book by Mitch Resnick Ph.D. Resnick is the Director of MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten, a group of researchers and learners studying how people learn. Some of the ideas we have been generating around here as a result of being part of this community have been truly joyful and exciting. One of them has become a soundbite-sized phrase, “Risk Tolerant-Learners.”

“Risk tolerant” is a phrase that comes out of the business world, specifically related to investments. Often it is stated with its inverse, “risk averse.” People should fall into these two dichotomous categories when it comes to their investments. We are encouraged when starting investing, presumably while still young with many years of earning potential ahead, to be more tolerant of risk in our investments. The reason for this is that taking risks with your investments are thought to be the primary way to see more dramatic returns. Investing in a tech stock, for instance, may see its value rise exponentially, but also fall dramatically. Hence the risk. Risk aversion is a sound strategy when you don’t expect to be able to recover from precipitous losses via protracted earning power.

How does this crossover to learning? Well, one thing I have been thinking a lot about is the idea of assimilating a new way of perceiving reality. To accept a new concept, idea, scheme, or construct, you must take a risk. You must let go of present perceptions, and possibly be mistaken. Doing so can feel risky. Tolerating risk in learning, however, must become our goal.

How do we who are the architects of others’ learning environments foster this in those who give us their trust? How do we reassure them that the risk is worth it, that the payoff of understanding makes taking that risk tolerable?

Here, I think, is the place for transparency, and self-assessment. We must embrace risk tolerance ourselves if we ever hope to engender it in others. We teachers and purveyors of knowledge have to accept the risk to our paradigms, and biases, if we ever hope to show the value of such risky behavior to our students.

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