Risk taking: the catalyst for achievement

Mr Mark Sullivan, Director of Instrumental Music

‘The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.’ — Eleanor Roosevelt

Looking back on my childhood and adolescent life through the lens of today’s standards of safety and risk minimisation, I feel lucky to be alive. It seems everything my friends and I did outside school was high risk. We loved climbing trees and playing on dangerous playground equipment, we rode bikes without brakes and helmets, rode in cars without seatbelts, ate food without use-by dates, enjoyed fireworks on Guy Fawkes night and engaged in neighbourhood combat games, to name a few. It was a life of freedom, exploration and creativity, where survival depended on awareness of danger, quick thinking and reliance on others.

At school the daily routine was strict, limited in scope and highly regulated with rules for everything. We marched into class daily to a rousing Sousa march, and sat in straight rows, chanting tables, memorising spellings and historical dates, and always motivated by fear of corporal punishment. Regulation textbooks provided all we needed to learn and any extension was to be found in the World Book Encyclopedia. Weekly tests were common and if the textbook was studied, good grades would follow. In short, creativity, individuality, research, problem solving and risk taking were not part of school life. There was no love of learning and the accumulation, reproduction and recall of facts and knowledge were the hallmarks of a successful scholar.

Fortunately, in 2014 our awareness of personal safety has significantly developed, and in schools, progressive educators understand and encourage creativity, exploration and risk taking as essential elements of educating young people — so students today live in a safer world in terms of both personal safety and educational outcomes.

In McWilliam and Taylor’s 2012 paper, Personally Significant Learning, they discuss the significant changes brought about by the digital revolution, the dramatic effect it has had on the education of young people and the unpredictability of their future. They argue teachers cannot continue to ask young people to remember lots of discipline-bound ‘stuff’ but build their capacity to thrive in a very different world. They suggest students need a broad net of creative capabilities as learners but most importantly among these capacities is a ‘disposition to welcome the instructive complications of error making, rather than simply “playing safe” through passive imitation and memorization’.

They go on to say that ‘learning matters more than knowing’ and the best teachers can do ‘is to ensure our young people develop a high-functioning disposition to learn and to make smart choices about what, how, where, and when they learn’. According to McWilliam and Taylor, this will require the ability to unlearn and relearn, which will mean choosing the discomfort of unfamiliar concepts and new ways of thinking and doing:

The way forward for schools is to maintain the high level of learning support we now know to be appropriate, but to increase our expectations of kids in terms of risk taking and innovativeness. This means, among other things, designing tasks that allow kids to ask better questions, not just give correct answers. It also means that high praise is not easily or quickly won, because complex task design militates against instant or easy success. Support is high but so too are expectations and challenges (McWilliam & Taylor, 2012).

With these thoughts in mind I set about preparing the Brisbane Girls Grammar School Chamber Orchestra for their performance at the Brisbane Grammar School String Fest. String Fest is an annual event where the most advanced string orchestras in the State prepare very challenging repertoire to perform as individual orchestras as well as together as a festival orchestra.

The professional model of orchestra rehearsal is of the all-knowing conductor who, like a puppet, master directs every aspect of the music, instructing, cajoling, scolding and inspiring his charges to a perfectly executed performance of his interpretation of the composer’s work. Similar to the twentieth century model of teaching, this is a very safe model for the high school orchestra or band as the responsibility for success rests largely with the conductor who also provides a sense of comfort, security and confidence for the players, particularly under the pressure of performance.

With McWilliams and Taylor’s work at the forefront of my thinking and their exhortation to raise the bar on risk and challenge, I replaced the Sage on Stage with the Meddler in the Middle and transferred the full responsibility for the final performance to each individual player, so every student would experience learning as personally significant.

After selecting the musically and technically challenging piece, the Moorside Suite by Gustav Holst, and spending some initial rehearsal time on survival mode learning notes and rhythms, I shocked the players by announcing the festival performance would be un-conducted. When the initial crisis of confidence subsided, it became obvious that the challenge was accepted, and a new spirit of personal engagement emerged at rehearsals.

The cooperative learning model outlined in Gillies and Cunnington’s 2014 paper Cooperative Learning: The behavioural and neurological markers that help to explain its success, was put in place. The orchestra was divided into small groups; diverse in age, instruments, and performance standard and each was set the task to work together to perfect all aspects of the music. The important musical elements were identified and all students were given permission to stop the rehearsal any time they felt something needed to be addressed. Every student was expected to have a voice on both technical and musical aspects in this collaborative learning environment. My role was a listening and observing one, asking questions to promote reflection, critical thinking, and clarification of technical issues, but always allowing each group to work independently. This strategy is designed for small groups to work together on a defined goal to develop group ownership, individual responsibility, small group communication skills, critical analysis skills, exploration of strategies, and social interaction.

Each rehearsal concluded with all groups coming together to play and critique the sections that had been rehearsed, to reflect on progress made and to identify aspects that required further work. These sessions were crucial for section leaders to learn how to be active leaders and for the group to build cohesion, trust and confidence in each other.

The second major strategy was a radical departure from traditional thinking, turning the structure of specific sections within the orchestra upside down. Each player was asked to sit next to a player who did not play the same part. This was a real challenge for those who relied on their desk partner for confidence and security, but it enabled players to gain a greater understanding of how other parts fitted into the texture and more importantly, developed individual responsibility in a high-challenge, low-threat environment. There was nowhere to hide as every member realised they were of equal importance to the outcomes of the group.

As the process developed, so did the level of confidence in achieving the task as well as the frequency of questioning and discussion on many aspects of performance including intonation, dynamics, sound production, balance, bowing, articulation, interpretation and style. There was a unity of purpose, with every player striving for individual perfection for the sake of the group.

Achieving a successful performance for a musical ensemble requires exceptional levels of execution and refinement — close to 100 per cent — on so many variables, from every player. One small error can create a domino effect that can easily derail the whole performance. With a conductor, such errors can be quickly rectified with little or no impact on the performance, but without a conductor, the risk of failure is very high with all players requiring acute concentration and listening skills, as well as the confidence to make an instant decision to retrieve a difficult situation.

At the final rehearsal there were a number of difficult transitions and tempo changes that were not completely secure, filling nervous minds with concern and doubt. This led to a discussion about the goal to perform un-conducted. The fact that the conversation was brief and with little appetite to retreat from the original goal that had been relentlessly pursued over the past month, was an indication to me the project was successful regardless of the outcome of the performance.

With renewed confidence and determination, the orchestra produced a dynamic, musical and near-faultless performance, leaving the stage to tumultuous applause and a deep sense of personal achievement and emotional satisfaction for each player.

Risk taking is an essential part of adolescent life. Without risks young people will never learn about their own capabilities or the joy of achieving against the odds. However, it can be dangerous in learning as well as in broader life. While the rewards can be exhilarating, as experienced at the recent Gala Concert, there is also uncertainty, ambiguity, doubt and the real possibility of failure. For students who take up the challenge, persist at the task, identify their deficiencies and remedy them, and understand that struggle is a natural part of learning, they are developing the growth mindset that is essential for success in both academic and personal life.

Without the pressure of competitions or the imperative of achieving high marks on the test, the Instrumental Music Programme at Brisbane Girls Grammar School provides students at all levels of technical development with the ideal safe environment where they can take risks that will develop their talents, abilities and growth mindset, and ultimately experience the pleasure of the rigour of learning.

Gillies, R., & Cunnington, R. (2014). Cooperative Learning: The behavioural and neurological markers that help to explain its success. Retrieved 22 September 2014 from http://apo.org.au/research/cooperative-learning-behavioural-and-neurological-markers-help-explain-its-success

McWilliam, E., & Taylor, P. (2012). Personally Significant Learning. Retrieved 22 September 2014, from http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/personally-significant-learning/