Dangerous Ideas in Education

11 April 2012 · 12 comments

in General Commentary, Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Whole School

From 11-16 June 2012, Scotland’s Colleges are organising a Festival of Dangerous Ideas. To quote the blurb on the website:

“The aim is to re-establish the importance of dangerous ideas as agents of change in education – to shift the axis of what is possible!”

The Real David Cameron summarised this nicely along the lines of ideas that appear like heresy now which could eventually become orthodox or common place. Gever Tulley, author of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let your Children Do), also commented:

“It seems that most new ideas are seen as dangerous right up until they become common place – this is an almost necessary aspect of the evolution of any idea.”

By its very nature, the education sector is largely a conservative bunch. We do not like to rock the boat because of the direct impact this can have on children and the potentially adverse effects of experimenting. And therein lies the first dangerous idea: Educators must be risk takers. In order for us to develop personally and professionally we have to channel our obsession with all forms of risk positively and productively as typified by this anonymous quote, which I do believe is applicable to our profession:

“To laugh is to risk appearing the fool, to weep is to risk appearing sentimental, to reach out for another is to risk exposing your true self. To place your ideas, your dreams before the crowd is to risk their loss, to love is to risk not being loved in return, to live is to risk dying, to hope is to risk despair. To try is to risk failure, but the risk must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live. Chained by his certitudes, he is a slave. He has forfeited all freedom. Only a person who risks is free.”

The end of this quote leads into the second dangerous idea: Educators must think and act from a position of professional freedom not fear. We are all responsible for our thoughts and feelings and therefore each and every one of us can make a conscious decision to do this. When a person or government tells us to do something that we know is not going to make a positive difference, then we need to be able to articulate our thoughts and act in the best interests of the children we serve. We must not be intimated by misguided or misinformed legislative practices.

A recent example of this comes from Deborah J Stewart who writes the blog, Teach Pre-school. In one post she blogs about introducing a rope to her children who used it to make an obstacle course. One comment informed her that in terms of her State’s legislation, she would be allocated the lowest rating on their scale for assessing the quality of her pre-school because the rope was longer than seven inches. Deborah simply replied, “my preschoolers would wholeheartedly disagree with that rating!

Deborah’s approach also exemplifies the third dangerous idea: Educators must be prepared to break rules and regulations. This is not a sanctioning of recklessness and irresponsibility. It’s about each and every one of us realising when a directive is inappropriate and having the courage to follow our beliefs and principles. It’s about us recognising the unsaid or hidden social rules which hinder or hamper a learning ethos within a school. It’s about being highly tuned in to the needs of children in our class and how to meet them.

All of the above take courage, commitment and bravery from every individual educator. Perhaps it remains a dangerous idea the thought that each and every one of us really can fundamentally shift education through our own beliefs, thoughts and actions.

Finally I’d like to suggest that we actually need more risk within the activities we offer children. A dangerous education, some might say! Again, Gever Tulley summarised this nicely:

“Seems to me we should make a distinction between “dangerous ideas” and pedagogical methods that incorporate danger.  In the latter case, I say that there is value in projects that contain an element of risk. For example, it is my experience that kids work harder, pay more attention, and put more thoughts into projects like sailboats, go-karts, and tree-houses. Part of this effort surely comes from the fact that their lives depending on the outcome. In this sense, the mathematics that we incorporate into the project experience prove the old adage that “algebra will one day save your life.” Somehow, the result of a difficult equation is so much more interesting when you know that getting it right is the difference between sailing and sinking. So, my thought is that an element of risk is a necessary part of meaningful learning. It helps children become creative, confident and in control of the world around them.”

I’d be interested to know your thoughts about this. Gever can be seen giving a TED Talk about 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do. Is this still too radical for our education system to consider embedding these ideas and principles? If so, then it truly is a Dangerous Idea!

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Teacher Tom April 11, 2012 at 12:40

This is brilliant, Juliet! Thank you for writing this manifesto.


Tom Bedard April 11, 2012 at 21:08

I think one of the challenges is being comfortable with the risks children naturally take. If you are nervous around their ventures, the children will read your body language and curtail them or stop them altogether. Which, as you point out, restricts their learning about the world and how it operates. Great post. I think you just took a risk :-0


Barbara Davis April 12, 2012 at 00:17

While i didn’t think anyone could top Teacher Tom’s post that won most influential post of 2011, I think he may have to hand this year over to you. Bravo!


Juliet Robertson April 12, 2012 at 20:09

Thanks for all your comments and kind words.

I spent today at The Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife. It was an amazing day for so many reasons that resonate with this post.

Firstly the nursery has created its own curriculum – that’s a brave step and arguably a dangerous one 🙂

Second, on the risk front it was great to be in a setting where there were no helicopter staff hovering over children as they played – even when climbing up and down a wee cliff using a rope to assist. Very often I see staff in settings allow risky activities yet remain highly anxious and protective rather than stepping back and letting the children lead.

Finally the nursery really believes in the value of free play so although there were clear routines and procedures in place, the children were able to get deeply absorbed in their play and had time to develop themes, projects and lines of thought. In most settings, many adults feel the need to intervene in this process.


Rachel April 18, 2012 at 16:08

Brilliant post Julliet! When we started Forest tots we felt like we were really living on the edge – so many people said things like “but isn’t that dangerous” (letting kids play in a stream) or “what will you do in bad weather” (play outside of course!!). Risk aversion (with regards to kids) is so endemic in our culture that not taking any risks has become the norm. Stepping outside of that has been hard and we are continually proving ourselves. Next week we are hosting a rep from the local district council….let’s hope we can persuade her we are taking good risks!


Suzanne April 22, 2012 at 15:38

Wow. I think it would be a different world though, if “liability” didn’t exist. I hadn’t seen this video, I’m glad I have now. For myself, I have to admit that sometimes I build myself a little cage of thoughts and activities built around the safety of the kids. Yet the things they and I enjoy the most are outside of that little cage. We might just be coming out more often!


French Valley K-Prep Preschool April 23, 2012 at 03:42

Loved this! How about something as simple as not being allowed to climb a slide? I let my preschoolers climb the slide, because it teaches them so much and builds their muscles. They know the rule that if someone wants to slide down, they respect the right of way. I find that the person who wants to slide down allows their classmate to finish climbing. I’ve been telling my Pre-Kers that when they go to kindergarten, they may be told that they are not allowed to climb the slide and to get ready for that different way of thinking. They understand.


fishblogger July 24, 2012 at 15:39

I think it’s even more dangerous to keep on doing the same old things and wait until they don’t work anymore. This is easily one of the most meaningful reads I’ve had in a while.

Forest School Training Sussex


Juliet Robertson July 26, 2012 at 06:54

Thanks for everyone’s thought – good comments all round.


Unnur Henrys April 28, 2017 at 17:25

Thank you Juliet for a brilliant post. Loved reading this, it reminded me of when I first started to take my group of children to the woods. It was with another class and some of the teachers doubted me because of what I allowed my children to do and they felt unsafe. instead of stopping my children we agreed to go with our classes on different days. So my children could carry on with what I thought was save in peace 😄😄


Juliet Robertson April 30, 2017 at 21:53

That is such a sensible solution. What is great is having seen your class out and about, they are confident, happy children who are clearly thriving outdoors.


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