Taking Responsible Risks by Applying Past Knowledge

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This blog post is part of an ASCD partnership with Wonder Media. To see all blog posts from Wonder Media on the 16 Habits of Mind, you can click here. 

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Have you ever heard the term “stepping out of your comfort zone?” Think about it, what is a ‘comfort zone’ and why must we step outside of it? To gain a better visual, draw a circle on a piece of paper. Outside of that circle, make a list of everything you desire in life, but do not currently obtain. Now, in order to bring the outside in, you are going to have to do something new and different. Yes! You you’re going to have to step out of your comfort zone and take some sort of risk.

Now, let’s relate this idea to the classroom, whether it’s trying a new approach to solving a math problem, answering a question you are unsure of, or making an effort to talk with a student you don’t know. All these examples bring forth positive outcomes in learning, building relationships, and taking risks to build knowledge. In the world outside of the classroom, people take responsible risks in order to gain success, knowledge, or new skills. If those risks are not taken, then desired success will not be accomplished, and the unknown will stay the unknown. For example, we all know the movie Batman (1989), starring Michael Keaton.  He was primarily recognized prior to Batman as a stand-up comedian and actor, starring in comedy roles like Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom. When the opportunity came around to audition for Batman, he stepped out of his shell to try something new. It was an educated, thought out, and responsible risk.  Although he did not know what the outcome would be, he took the leap. And you know what, he nailed it! To many critics his portrayal of Batman was the best of all time.

“Responsible risk takers do not respond impulsively. Their risks are educated. They draw on past knowledge, are thoughtful about consequences, and have a well-trained sense of what is appropriate.”

 – Dr. Art Costa & Bena Kallick, The Institute for Habits of Mind

In a 10th grade English class at Hunterdon Central Regional High School run by myself and my colleague, Mr. McHale, students are reading the play MacBeth from the original text. This play is new to our students, and so is the Old English text of course. Students display anxiety, resistance, and will do anything possible to not be called on to read. As I express the need for students to take a speaking role in the play, no one raises their hand to participate. A conversation then sparks, going something like this:

Dr. Vollrath: Is anyone willing to read out loud? I understand you might be a bit nervous to read, but in order to overcome your fear, you must take a responsible risk. I think everyone in here has taken risks before, am I right? Let’s all reminisce back to our primary school years and what it was like to take a risk. Does anyone have an experience they can share?

Student #1: I remember when I was in kindergarten I moved to Florida and didn’t know anyone. I had to take a responsible risk by introducing myself to classmates. I remember it was hard a first, but after I met a few kids, I was so happy I took the risk.

Student #2: It feels like just yesterday. When I was in second grade, my math teacher would ask us questions and I would never answer. I was scared that I was going to mess up and didn’t want to be embarrassed. My teacher told me that it was alright to feel that way, but I should try to take a risk and answer questions, like the other students do. As the year went on I started to answer questions and participate more. I am so happy I did since it has made me the successful student I am today.

Student #3: In the first grade, I decided to do my homework in the morning instead of at night. I thought this was a responsible risk. Even though I knew I should have been working on my homework, instead of playing video games, I thought I could get it done in the morning. Most of the time, I did! But there were many times I did not. After a while I realized that my homework wasn’t always done correctly and I started getting bad grades. So, I started doing my homework at night again. My responsible risk of not doing my homework at night turned out to help me in the long run by realizing that I need to work on my time management.

Dr. Vollrath: Wow, so as we can see from these stories, taking a responsible risk can help you become more successful down the road. It seems that many of you learned that your risks paid off, and made you more aware about the importance of venturing out. So, is everyone ready to take a responsible risk and read a part of MacBeth?

To develop an understanding of taking responsible risks, we provided an opportunity for students to apply past knowledge (another useful habit) through sharing a personal experience from their childhood. This exercise transitioned the class nicely into recognizing the importance of reading something new and trying something different. It might lead them to new knowledge, skills, or inspiration.

Habits of Mind Animations presents an exciting story behind the habit of “Taking Responsible Risks” along with engaging lessons and activities. Practicing responsible risk taking at an early age can help students feel more comfortable stepping outside of their comfort zone in the future.  Cultivating this habit makes the classroom experience more enjoyable, more valuable, and more memorable for the student and the teacher alike.


Dr. Daniel Vollrath serves as an educator and a United States Professional Development Trainer with the Institute for Habits of Mind. Daniel provides consulting to school districts around the nation on how to infuse the Habits of Mind into everyday teaching and learning within the classroom. His expertise is documented through a doctoral study titled Developing Costa & Kallick’s Habits of Mind Thinking for Students with a Learning Disability and Special Education Teachers (2015), which has gained attention within the world of special education, specifically in the areas of inclusive learning environments and 21st century skills development for students with learning disabilities.

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