21st Century Skills: Danger and Free-range Schooling

Is it inherently unsafe to be a creative, critical thinker?  Are Tony Wagner’s seven survival skills risky? Is safety ruining our schools?

I’ve been living a strange life lately.  Working as a teacher at a comprehensive high school, still working with my former students from my previous school as they prepare to go to college, and writing a charter application to open a teacher-powered school have created many days of cognitive dissonance. During a lesson, a meeting, or planning, I often find myself thinking about my future school and how I want it to be.

Just last week, I had my current students working on a mini Civil Disobedience unit to address their constant failure to follow any of the code-of-conduct rules (mainly, cell phone use and dress code).  I invited the principal to talk with the students about the reason why we have the rules that they never follow.  He was gracious and came to the three 10th grade classes.

My goal was to have the students either write an argumentative letter to the principal asking him to change the rules (using his explanations for the rules) or to decide that the rules made sense and follow them.  What I hadn’t anticipated was how much this exercise would teach me about being a potential leader at my future school.

Turns out: much of our educational system—and possibly life—is ruled by a desire to be safe and avoid being sued.

The no hat/hoodie rule is no longer about lice and civility but so we can identify students on camera who engage in fights or theft.  The cell phone rule is so students don’t text each other or post comments on social media that lead to a fight.  The random police dog training days are to assure our school community that we are safe.

Since seventh grade, when I acted as Benjamin Franklin in a class project based on the Constitutional Congress, I have pondered his quote: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

I want my future school to be a free-range school (like free-range parenting) where children are taught how to be independent thinkers, workers, and citizens.

I also want it to be a project-based learning school that teaches 21st century skills. But I can’t help but wonder if that won’t make it inherently “unsafe” and potentially lawsuit prone:

  • To think creatively, you have to take risks, push against boundaries, and work in the unknown.
  • To communicate, you do the same, risking offense.
  • To collaborate is inherently risky.  Interacting with strangers is dangerous.
  • To think critically means to challenge the status quo.  One of my colleagues, who is working on the application with me, calls it reasonable risk.  She runs a hiking group at her school and often wonders about safety and lawsuits.

There are danger signs everywhere.  If someone has a different religion, war rages.  If someone is from the opposite political party, riots ensue.  If someone wears the wrong color clothes in a neighborhood, shots ring out.

But these dangers come from a population that has forgotten how to be creative critical thinkers, communicators, and collaborators.

So, to the educators out there who are truly teaching 21st century skills, and to Tony Wagner who writes about the seven survival skills I ask, “How do you balance the need to be safe with the need to teach children to take reasonable risks?  Can a school truly teach 21st century skills?

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  • Martha Bartlett

    Free Range Schooling….

    How refreshing to read.  I remember in the late 60s when I was in elementary school how upset my mother was when the school district and the parents in the neighborhood did not want to allow us to walk the 1/2 mile through the field to school, saying it was unsafe.  They also locked the school doors so to her, the school came to feel more like a prison. And now 50 years later, these policies have become imbedded in stone, only more so with our "progress of technology." Perhaps she was raising us "free range" as we explored nature, music, athletics and academics. Now as an educator, I have watched students thrive in my "free range" classroom (which is harder and harder to do in the current testing climate).  Sure, until the students experience the respect and responsibility that comes in such a setting, there are learning moments for the entire class, but over time these "free range students" experience the confidence that comes along with learning about themselves, others and the world.  We have got to let them get their hands dirty and discover the world while taking responsible risks. 

  • wjtolley

    Your post resonates with me

    Your post resonates with me Kim, because I know that a great deal of what I write about currently gains no traction with my former colleagues in East Harlem, NYC. Even at one of the safer (no metal detectors) and higher performing schools in the community, student behavior issues remain paramount and deflect any attempts at individualized learning strategies. And, like you mention, in the few cases where the teacher has built trust and has the mastery to attempt a few “free-range” exercises, either her peers, or the administration or the district are often–legitimately–so concerned about the classroom being a petri dish for litigation, the attempts are frowned on. I have been the victim of frivolous legal action, I know exactly how much it drains teaching and learning, even when it is eventually proven frivolous and nothing comes of it. 

    Just keep pushing forward, hoping for the best. Fight the good fights. 

  • AmyJunge

    I love the free-range school terminology.

    You’ve hit on a huge problem with our current system. Instead of designing an education system with what is best in mind, it is designed to avoid fear and legal battles. When teachers have the power to create classrooms and schools that really take into account individual students (their motivations, prior knowledge, skills, talents) and not subject them to a one for all process, then students have a chance to thrive. One of the best parts of teacher-powered schools is that students and teachers are empowered and gain confidence as they grow together.

  • akrafel

    RIsk Taking

    You talk about reasonable risk taking and how fear can squash creativity. The outside the school folks do think of risk management and they do operate from fear. We can not allow fear to dominiate in the inside of the school. Inside the school, we want free ranging students who are allowed to step outside the previous limitations. How do we teach that to children, how we can create it in schools? My take on free ranging parenting and schooling is that is that we create around the children when they are young, a culture of kindness that allows them to feel safe to be who they are. You see toddlers range away from the mother and then look back to see that the anchor is still there. Good parents allow kids to free-range in an environment of safety created in a loving home. I think the same thing applies to schools. If you want reasonable risk taking, which for most students takes the form of academic risk, of trying something they are not sure they can do, the environment must support these fledgling forays into the world. Positive feedback must replace judgement of grades and competition. If you get hurt taking risks, you will perceive risk taking as dangerous. If we want self-control, we need to give them practice in environments of limited freedom to make mistakes and learn from it. Behavior in the common spaces of the school is a good place to practice. I think your lesson on mini-civil disobedience is a perfect example of creating a thoughtful and respectful school environment. You did not just come down on them from on high, but encouraged their personal sense of community responsibility. If we want responsible students we must give them the space to lead and have their ideas and leadership taken seriously and received gently by the adults and their fellow students. This can be practiced in every interaction between student and teacher. In my mind this accepting environment can only be created if the members of the community are actively practicing kindness, respect, gentleness and trust. You have a wonderful opportunity to create a culture in your new teacher powered school. Think about creating a culture of kindness from which creative individuals can free- range both with their teachers and with each other. Kudos to you for taking the risk. Best of wishes.