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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