Risk Taker or Innovator?

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Hollie Anderton

Hollie is currently an English teacher and Head of Year in North Wales with a degree in Theatre. She trained in Bath Spa University to gain her PGCE and is currently a Network Leader for WomenEd Wales Hollie is the author of the Teacher Toolkit...
Read more about Hollie Anderton

What’s the worst that can happen?

So many times in our lives we elect to turn down a risk. The word itself holds quite negative connotations that redirect thinkers back to the ‘what if’s‘. But what if we didn’t turn them down?

It is easy to say that about taking some risks.

‘Should I risk eating this Double Decker before Slimming World?

‘Should I risk buying this kitten without asking my other half?’

However, risks that are taken in the classroom can have more serious repercussions than your other half having a sulk for an hour then falling in love with said kitten. Risks taken in class are analysed and assessed until the risk of risk is essentially zero.

Some people like to stay in their comfort zone, I don’t. At least not in my teaching.

I proposed an idea in a staff meeting not long ago about an experimental classroom. I had heard about people experimenting with halving the amount of tables and chairs in their classrooms and painting the whole room white to ensure no distractions and I was excited at the prospect. I’ll admit, it was a stab in the dark at first, a notion. But then I got the go ahead. I was given two weeks, to try it out, take the risk.

The reason behind my wanting to try this was that I thought it unfair that we expect children to listen and learn sat with 5 other children on one table. Do adults work like that? Being told by their boss that they need to get on and focus quietly? The honest answer is no. Most adults are given a choice in the manner that they want to complete their work whether that be quietly and alone or collaboratively.

Learning Zones:

Like I said, I liked the sound of it but I really had no concrete plans of what I wanted my classroom to look like. I drew up an albeit messy plan, detailing the ‘zones’ I wanted in this new concoction. I use the term ‘zones’ deliberately as I was drawing a lot of inspiration from Vygotsky’s theories of Social Constructivist learning.

I removed tables from my classroom and started to reorganise. I came up with the following zones:

Independence Island:

(1) A place with single island tables, one chair, facing the wall.

(2) A collection of cushions on the floor for a more comfortable style of work.

Collaboration Quarter:

(1) A group of tables with white paper stuck to cover the surface. No chairs.

(2) A group of chairs with whiteboards and pens. No tables.

Focus Force:

A horseshoe table layout for Teacher-Pupil. Either to support or challenge.

Learning Pit:

An area in the former ‘Book Nook’ wherein the completely puzzled pupil can take their work into the pit, supported by a Teaching Assistant, until they have overcome their problem. Then they climb out of the pit.


In The Zone

These zones were the foundation for my new classroom with the whole principle being encompassed by pupil choice. Yes, they may be children, but they know how they work best. Giving them this sense of responsibility for their own learning unleashes a new mindset for them.


The two weeks went by, not without their flaws, but we are still going. Still innovating. Still taking risks.

I’m not saying that every classroom should be this. But I have seen first hand that this has given me a new perspective. Seeing them choose where they want to be every lesson is just phenomenal and it allows you to see a mature and adult way of thinking coming from 10/11 year old’s (in my case).

So next time you’re erring on the side of caution, ask yourself:

What’s the worst that can happen?

Hollie Anderton writes for Teacher Toolkit

3 thoughts on “Risk Taker or Innovator?

  1. Reading this post got me really excited because I think steps like these are ones our educational system needs to take as a whole. While on the one hand I do understand how this could have been a risk to personally take alone and go against the grain of what is expected of teachers, I do not think it should have to be deemed a risk to change classrooms like this as a whole because it works. There has been so much research regarding the current layout of classrooms and how the current “factory-style” layout is far too outdated. Even Sal Khan of Khan Academy has realized and noted this obvious flaw in American education in his book “One World Schoolhouse” . What is currently in place in classrooms of America is the same original structure of a classroom intended to make all children learn the same thing in order to be prepared for factory work. However, clearly this is not still the intended purpose of lower education. Therefore, keeping classroom structures the same does not seem fitting at all. All kids learn differently which is why different spaces make sense within classrooms to allow for individual, collaborative, and smaller group and teacher settings. Along with this, the bare walls, while seemingly contradictory to what may be initially believed, is something researchers Godwin, Seltman, and Fisher at Carnegie Mellon have proved to be much less distracting and much more conducive to learning.

    However, the biggest concern here is how was the immediate and drastic change in learning environment taken by the kids who actually were in Anderton’s class? Besides the huge adjustment into this kind of learning setting, what happens the next year when these kids are forced back into a “traditional” classroom? Did it unlimitedly help these kids to participate in this “risk” for one year or would it maybe have been more beneficial to use these settings as more supplementary and temporary setups within the classroom? Last year during one of my classes, we were given the task of designing a maker space and a design space. Throughout the semester the whole class worked and researched to each come up with our different parts for the plan. In the end I feel like we had a space very similar to this one for the maker space with zones designated for different types of learning and creativity. However, this space was not created for a classroom because it would be unfair to expect kids to adjust into this and then back out. There are schools thought that have flipped all their classrooms or implemented this forward thinking throughout all their classrooms like School of One. Michael Horn discusses this in his article in Forbes about how classrooms here are intended to fix many of the same things Anderton is hoping to address like meeting students where they are and allowing them personal choice on how to learn the material. It allows students to take ownership.

    So the question becomes should teachers take this risk individually and force students to abruptly adjust in and out of this setting at the start and end of one year, or do we continue with what we have until there is a full-scale institutionalized change within the whole system or at least whole schools? Just as each student is different and has different needs, each school and teacher also has their own needs and styles so I do not think there is one right answer but I do believe these risks cannot be taken lightly with out looking at long-term after-effects which I’m sure is not something Anderton looked passed quickly. The rigid classroom setting we have that are glued to the curriculum for test-taking purposes seems so suffocating that it only seems right that someone take that first step toward change.

  2. I love the idea of this and was using a similar structure for Maths lessons in my previous classroom. (Working on cracking the behaviour with my new class before giving them greater atonomy.) However, the logistics mean that at one point in your lesson you have 12 at your guided table and 2 at the independent table, later in the lesson you have 22 at the independent table. Therefore, zones have to be very flexible to allow for a sudden influx of children.

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