What We Risk if We Risk Nothing at All

At the beginning of “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” the students in both the MOOC and the face-to-face class at Duke University were asked to write about their favorite teacher. I didn’t hesitate in my answer: Karen Hevelston. Her first day was as a substitute in my high-school art class. After dutifully giving the assigned painting project, she strolled through the grouped tables quietly making comments. I was hunched over, sardonically painting, “I don’t want to paint.” After a pause, she asked the unthinkable, “Well, what do you want to do?”

Karen Hevelston did something that is hard for any teacher, regardless of the classroom. She went off script, ignored the plan book and the inevitable assessments, and took a risk. She embraced the possibility of inviting chaos into the classroom.

Every Wednesday in the face-to-face class, I hear versions of that same question asked again (by fellow students and faculty members), “Well, what do you want to do?” And when I get on the forums of the MOOC, I hear the students asking one another the same thing. Posing “What do you want to do?” not only invites possibilities but also imbues the student with agency.

It’s also a question that can make students uncomfortable. There is an intimate relationship between creativity and risk. Often when we talk about risk in relation to students, we talk about it in terms of risky behavior involving alcohol, drugs, or sex. I define risk as any activity we engage in in which the result is not guaranteed. There is no art without risk, and there is no learning without risk.

We learn early on that risk in education is unacceptable—both as teachers and students. My second grader came to me with his math homework a few weeks ago. The students were supposed to write all the even numbers in a grouping of 0 to 10. He timidly asked, “Mom, 0 isn’t anything, is it? It’s not positive.” I agreed and told him just to start with 2. “But, I’ll get in trouble,” he said. “Teacher says we have to start with 0.” Already by age 8, he has absorbed the message (even against my constant coaching otherwise) that it is not OK to risk a possible wrong answer, even on homework.

When was the last time you walked into your kitchen and didn’t follow a recipe? Or even cooked without an expectation of deliciousness? Students are coming to college afraid to cook without a recipe, and it is our responsibility as educators to create an environment where they have the luxury to fail and therefore engender discovery and innovation. Allowing for creative chaos in the classroom is a necessity in learning. Using collaborative creative projects within the classroom, as Amanda Phillips describes in a blog post, allows for the students to use experimentation to discover new relationships within their knowledge.

We rarely think about the actual meaning of the word “creativity” (which is a wholly original word with no appropriate synonym), beyond an ethereal sense of it. The Random House dictionary defines it as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.”

Within the walls of traditional higher education, there have been efforts to produce opportunities for creativity, such as colleges’ experiments with flipped classrooms, portfolios instead of papers, and student-designed projects. This past fall Duke University started the Duke STEAM Challenge, in which groups of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students from different disciplines come together to try to create projects for the greater good. How can we generate similar collaboration within the wall-less MOOC?

Collaboration adds fuel to the fire in the creative process. There is an even greater inclination toward creativity within a diverse group because people must re-examine their own notions in order to find a bridge. In the MOOC forums, the wikis, and on Rap Genius, the ideas and resources were flying—and changing—as students juxtaposed their own concepts with other students’. I was reminded of the teacher-philosopher and filmmaker Peter Kubelka, who teaches filmmaking through cooking. In a 2005 lecture called “The Edible Metaphor,” he says, “All art speaks with metaphors. I use this term in the straight Greek sense … which means to bring yonder, to bring, to transport something and to put it against something else, and then it is compared, and from this comparison, we make sense.” Collaborators are metaphor makers on the fly, by necessity, allowing creativity to transcend their ideas.

Recently my children took part in the Odyssey of the Mind competition, a worldwide program that gives groups of children the opportunity to solve open-ended problems. The group practices, which include no adult help, were loud, messy, and chaotic. Collaborative creativity at its best. The official 2014 Odyssey of the Mind T-shirt motto was the germane “Keep Calm and Create On.” As the “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” students move into the world with the questions they have posed over the last six weeks, I hope they remember to “Take Risk, Invite Chaos, Keep Calm, and Create On” because the risk of not taking a risk is too great.

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