When most of us were children, we had a lot of unsupervised time to explore. Sometimes we got lost. Sometimes we got hurt. We faced bullies, cranky adults, and aggressive neighborhood dogs. These adventures helped us learn to negotiate risk as we explored the ragged borders of our world.
Our students need exploration, complexity, and the risk of failure. If we spare them from struggle, we might rob them of fulfillment, too.
An article in The Atlantic last month (“The Overprotected Kid”) describes the harm we’ve done to children by seeking to eliminate danger from their lives. The piece details the benefits of risk-taking, including a point by one of the original crusaders for safer playground equipment who worries we’ve gone too far: “In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”
Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early childhood education, elaborates on this idea: “Children are born with the instinct to take risks in play, because historically, learning to negotiate risk has been crucial to survival; in another era, they would have had to learn to run from some danger, defend themselves from others.”
The piece is directed toward parents, but it got me thinking about three implications for teachers.
1. Failure is an option.
Tim Gill, author of No Fear, critiques “an idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation. Now our working assumption is that children cannot be trusted to find their way around tricky physical or social and emotional situations.” The same is true of trusting students to find their way around difficult academic challenges.
When a project is more complex, the risk of “failure” tends to be greater. But when my 2nd graders design a skyscraper from straws that fails the stability test by tipping over when I aim the class blow dryer at it, the failure feels very different to them than flunking a spelling quiz. They see it as an interlude they can learn from, an inevitable stretch of the path toward eventual success. In his book Engaging Students, Philip Schlechty calls this concept “productive failure.”
CTQ blogger Kris Kohl described a project highlighted at the Deeper Learning Conference where students design a snowboarding helmet that balances safety, style, and affordability, then pitch their design to regional businesses. These kinds of projects, with myriad possible solutions instead of four neatly labeled bubbles, do more to prepare kids for eventual careers than test prep and scripted curricula.
On a multiple choice test, getting the wrong answer is the end of that particular problem. In a real-life design challenge, coming up with a solution that doesn’t work is just the beginning of the next phase. Students learn to modify their design, test it again, and continue that loop until it does work—learning something valuable from the temporary failures along the way.
Part of this change has to do with shifting the focus of instruction and testing toward complex real-life skills like collaboration, perseverance, and ingenuity. But it also requires us to trust that students can handle complex problems.
Kids can figure these challenges out. They’ll work through initial confusion and periodic frustration. They’ll become more capable, resilient learners as a result.
2. “Teacher, leave those kids alone!” –Pink Floyd
When most of us were children, we had a lot of unsupervised time to explore. Sometimes we got lost. Sometimes we got hurt. We faced bullies, cranky adults, and aggressive neighborhood dogs. These adventures could be thrilling, or they could be miserable. In either case, they helped us learn to negotiate risk as we explored the ragged borders of our world.
In the classroom, we’re never going to leave students unsupervised. But we can build in the direct instruction on the front end, then give students extended blocks of time to create their own timelines, work through their conflicts, and try out ideas that flop and fail.
We can spend more time listening and making notes for class discussions to follow, but holding ourselves back from intervening when a conversation gets heated or someone suggests an idea that probably won’t work.
At the ECET2 conference in February, I was part of a group session with 300 teachers where the facilitator interrupted our table conversations every three or four minutes with a reminder or further instructions. By the third interruption, people were glaring at her with open hostility. I realized my students must feel that way toward me all the time.
Some division of the day into smaller segments is inevitable—15 minutes for learning new vocabulary through Total Physical Response, 20 minutes of Shared Reading to build fluency, and so on. But our students also need the experience of breaking a complex task into smaller parts, dividing up the work among team members, and setting deadlines for themselves.
These opportunities can start as early as kindergarten. Teachers just need to set up our students for success with a clear explanation of the task on the front end, some guidance along the way on how to collaborate and manage conflict, and a few minutes for reflection after a block of uninterrupted work time. When kids get these chances to structure their own time, they develop a skill they’ll need for high school, college, and a career beyond.
3. Imitation vs. Innovation
The author of the Atlantic article makes an astute observation near the end of the piece:
“One common concern of parents these days is that children grow up too fast. But sometimes it seems as if children don’t get the space to grow up at all; they just become adept at mimicking the habits of adulthood.”
It’s easy to teach kids to imitate what we demonstrate, whether it’s copying a sentence from the board or repeating the algorithm for long division. The problem is that mimicry doesn’t require understanding. On a hike in the Alps in college, I hung out with a couple of French bohemians around a campfire one night. One of them sang “Hotel California” with perfect pitch, no trace of an accent. Then he fixed me with an inquisitive gaze and asked in French, “What is that song about? I don’t speak English, and I’ve always wondered what all those words mean.”
Students learn more when we take the path of most resistance. When we teach them to think through complex problems, seeking guidance from peers or adults along the way. When we teach skills like long division and persuasive writing as a means to an end—abilities our students will need to complete projects of their own invention—not as an end in themselves. To listen carefully to their thinking as they come to their own conclusions, not to check off how accurately they have adopted ours.
A Crisis of Our Making
In “The Creativity Crisis,” educational psychologist Kyung-Hee Kim analyzed data from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. He came to a devastating conclusion. American children have become “less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, and less likely to see things from a different angle.”
Carl Sagan once said that 2nd graders make the best scientists. Children tend to be curious and inquisitive. They ask the big questions. They’re fascinated by the world around them.
If American kids have become less imaginative, it’s because we adults have sabotaged their imagination. If they have become less expressive, it’s because we have sent the message that they should primarily be receptive. Readers, but not writers. Listeners, not speakers.
As adults, we have plenty to teach children—books worth reading, countries worth visiting, whole fields of knowledge worth the study it takes to attain mastery. But we can’t spend so much time imparting information that they never get the chance to create new knowledge.
In our eagerness to help, we can’t forget our obligation to “first do no harm.” As a child, my mom told me the story of the well-meaning Samaritan who saw a butterfly struggling to escape its cocoon. Eager to help, he cut open the cocoon. The butterfly soon faltered and died. It needed the struggle he spared it.
Our students need that struggle, too.