Working the Tensions

Alison Cook-Sather & Alice Lesnick
Risk-Taking in the Classroom and Beyond
“Exploring Reasons to Risk Uncertainty in the Classroom”
November 29, 2007

The following is an excerpt from Lesnick, A.,Cohen, J., and Cook-Sather, A. (2007) “Working the Tensions: Constructing Educational Studies within a Liberal Arts Context.” Taking Teaching Seriously: How Liberal Arts Colleges Prepare Teachers to Meet Today's Educational Challenges in Schools. Christopher Bjork, D. Kay Johnston, and Heidi Ross (Eds.). Paradigm Publishers, p. 60-61.

Risk as Part of Teaching and Learning

Our first premise is that teaching and learning depend on unpredictable relationships, experiences, and prior knowledge. In contrast to the familiar, often unexamined assumption that education should and can be controlled by a teacher, curriculum, ideology, or governing body, we assume that education as a fundamentally interactive process cannot be entirely anticipated or ensured by any of its participants. Openness to learners’ identities, languages, experiences, and interactions (with one another, with us, and with the structures of education and society) introduces ongoing uncertainty and vulnerability to the process of education. Such openness also gives greater priority to certain teaching skills, such as listening, facilitating dialogue, fostering collaboration, seeking resources, and reflecting.

Our students must practice these skills to complete our courses and come to regard them as central to good teaching; we hope that they will continue to emphasize them in their future work as educators. The fact that each of our courses includes a field-based component introduces another form of risk into our teaching and our students’ learning. While we make as thoughtful and well-informed field placement assignments for students as we can, we cannot fully predict what the nature of the placement experience will be — just as classroom teachers can never fully anticipate the identities, needs, and goals of each class of students. As students progress through our program from the introductory course through electives and the culminating courses, we cannot foresee the partially person- and placement-specific ways in which their knowledge of educational practice will deepen and change. We commit to a process of building from the experiences that unfold and seek to equip our students with a disposition to do likewise.

The effort to undermine impersonal modes of education is an ongoing part of educational reform. Such reform and the struggle to bring it about are utterly necessary and, as history shows, will continue to be difficult to achieve in broad terms. In a sense, then, the work to accomplish such reform is endless and any expectation that it will be “successful” in standard terms is likely to be foiled. In the conviction that in seeking justice we are assuming the likely risk of failure and vulnerability to forces beyond our control, we follow what Welch (1990) has defined as an “ethic of risk”:

… an ethic that begins with the recognition that we cannot guarantee decisive changes in the near
future or even in our lifetime. The ethic of risk is propelled by the equally vital recognition that to stop resisting, even when success is unimaginable, is to die. . . . Responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but the creation of a matrix in which further actions are possible, the creation of the conditions of possibility for desired changes.” (p. 20)

With Welch, we see this work as at once doomed and hopeful, cross-generational, and essentially incomplete.
At the same time, it is important to honor the tension between setting reachable goals—in teaching and in educational reform—and accepting limitless challenge. Our students press us for strategies and tools with which to handle this tension, and we respond to a similar need in our own work. Similarly, we seek balance between convergent and divergent thinking in the classroom, between problem posing and problem-solving as educational goals, between teaching students to work within and against dominant languages and standards of educational attainment (Delpit, 1998). Tacking between stability and risk, we seek to prepare students for similar movement across educational approaches and structures.