I read an excellent article this evening titled “Raising the Bar” by Wayne Curtis in the summer issue of Wondertime magazine, which unfortunately is NOT available electronically for free. The article is about the historical and contemporary evolution of playground equipment for kids, but I found several of Curtis’ comments to be insightful about learning and education more generally. On page 108 he wrote:

The reason adventure playgrounds are so safe probably stems from a simple concept: Kids who are really engaged in what they’re doing are less likely to do things they’re not supposed to. And when real risk is involved, they don’t feel as compelled to manufacture their own.

There are lots of directions we can potentially take this quotation. How much “real risk” is there at your school, in classroom learning environments? I’m not contradicting Maslow or Ruby Payne here, I definitely believe students need a SAFE environment both at school and at home in which they can be confident they will not be physically or emotionally harmed. I’m not questioning that type of safety, or saying kids want or should have learning environments where they feel insecure. What I’m asking here is how often are students invited to make REAL CHOICES in your classroom? Choices that matter. Are they so tied down and restricted, literally or figuratively, that they have few chances to exercise their volitional abilities?

How about potential risks on your school network? Are there any? Again, I’m not insinuating or explicitly saying U.S. schools shouldn’t comply with CIPA. Of course schools should, whether or not they receive eRate funding. What I’m challenging you to think about is the existence or absence of opportunities for students to regularly make decisions that involve risk in the electronic environment, for which there are natural as well as logical consequences. If there is minimal risk at school in the electronic environment, is it any wonder so many students are struggling to be engaged in meaningful tasks there?

a bored student

If school is still in session where you live (it is for two more days here in Oklahoma) how many teachers have stopped teaching and are just showing movies? I spoke with a high school junior at our church last week about this, and he reported that only one of his teachers was still teaching. Everyone else was showing movies. What a WASTE of taxpayer money and student time. I thought about suggesting he actually ask a school board member how much cash the district was receiving from the state by his voluntary action of warming a seat in the school for the remaining days of the term. If he could get that answer, perhaps he could offer a straight-up trade of dollars for his freedom for the remainder of the academic year?

If all his teachers except one are just showing movies (and we can be fairly sure that public showing of full-length Hollywood movies in class does violate both the spirit and letter of US copyright law, including fair use provisions as they apply to educators) then it makes sense to me he should have the chance to opt out of attendance. Of course such a suggestion could be considered outlandish and even heretical in 2007 in our Oklahoma schools, so it’s not likely someone would make it in all seriousness. But the issues here ARE very real. Are we engaging students in meaningful work at school? Are we inviting them to engage in work that matters? When we are merely striving to prepare students to pass scantron graded tests, or even prompt-based writing tests, we may think we are “doing our jobs” as educators. If we fail to authentically engage students in the regular, joyful practice of learning, communicating, collaborating and sharing, however, I think we’ve missed the boat. If we fail to provide opportunities for our students to regularly EXERCISE CHOICE in decisions that matter in their learning environment, I also think we’re letting them down.

Students want to be engaged in work that matters, and they are naturally attracted to experiences and challenges which offer both complexity and choice. This quotation from Curtis’ article about playgrounds also jumped out at me, in the context of schools and learning theory:

Children are drawn to complexity and choice, and these linked playgrounds offered that and more. Children would have to decide which way to ascend the platform, then which way to exit. Slide? Bridge? Down the ladder? The choices enriched the experience, and the varied levels– up, down, over, under, inside, out– created a complex environment for social interaction.

Again, let’s change the context of the previous sentences from the playground to the classroom. Are your students being regularly invited into environments rich with complexity and choice? Video games certainly offer those qualities to players of all ages, but many of our classrooms do not. How about social interaction? Does your principal believe a good “learning classroom” sounds like a graveyard at midnight? If so, s/he probably also thinks learning should always be RIGORous, perhaps not realizing a phrase related to the word RIGORous is “Rigor mortis,” defined in the Wikitionary as:

one of the recognizable signs of death (Latin mors, mortis) that is caused by a chemical change in the muscles after death, causing the limbs of the corpse to become stiff (Latin rigor) and difficult to move or manipulate.

Got dead learners on your hands in the classroom? Got dead teachers? (“Dead” in the context of their passion for learning.) Unfortunately they can be easy to find in many school districts.

You see, it is much easier to give kids a worksheet and lecture, or as Marco Torres so eloquently said it in his keynote at MACE in March 2007, ask the students to read pages 1-20 of the textbook and answer questions 1-10 at the end of the chapter. We’ve been doing that since the late 1800s. And you know what? That wasn’t great pedagogy then, and it certainly isn’t good pedagogy today.

High quality learning and high quality learning environments must be all about differentiation: Differentiation of the ways students can learn, differentiation of assessment options available to both learners and teachers, and differentiation of the content studied by learners. High quality learning environments also must provide TIME for in-depth study. There must be sharp limits to the stress and pressure forced upon both expert and novice learners. The stress levels in many of our classrooms today, brought on by mandated high-stakes accountability AND by educators with misplaced priorities, reminded my wife today of the atrocious working conditions in 19th century factories which eventually led to child labor laws. How much more ridiculous pressure will we continue to put on our students in our schools, before a critical mass of national leaders stands up and says, “ENOUGH?!”

Our learning environments, and lives in general in many U.S. communities, tend to be vastly over-structured. The following quotation from Curtis in this article reminds me of Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” which my wife has read and I still need to read. On page 104 of the magazine article, Curtis quoted the Danish landscape architect C. Th. Sorensen, who wrote in 1947:

It is opportune to warn against too much supervision and too many arrangements for the children. Children ought to be free and by themselves to the greatest possible extent.

Let learners have unstructured free time? The very idea likely strikes many, and perhaps you, as preposterous for schools. After all, we’re creating our schools to be exactly like prisons, where kids are told what to do every minute of the day and sharply limited in the free choices they can make, because out of school in “the real world” that’s just the sort of environment in which they’ll be required to live? Right?

We’ve got to stop buying the ridiculous idea that our school systems exist to make the jobs of college admission offices easy. (I heard that idea first from Roger Shank at SITE in March.) Our schools do not exist to simply prepare students for college. Our schools do not exist to simply keep administrators and teachers out of hot water because their school showed up on a low-performing list based on test scores. Our schools do not exist to simply provide child care supervision for young people during the hours of eight and three o’clock, Monday through Friday. Our schools do not exist to familiarize poor students with the environment of prison, so they will be comfortable there later in life. (“The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America” by Jonathan Kozol) Our schools do not exist to waste students’ time, and convince them that learning is about trading large chunks of time, paired with small amounts of intense studying, for pieces of paper which purport to prove they have learned something.

Schools DO EXIST to prepare students to be successful, constructive and contributing members of our diverse society. Schools DO EXIST to help students learn to navigate a complex world filled with choices and pitfalls. Schools DO EXIST to inspire learners to be the courageous and visionary leaders our communities, our states, our nations and our planet direly need in the 21st century. Our world remains a tangled mess, and our need for ethical leadership is strong.

Got engaged learners at your school, regularly challenged with complexity and choices? If not, it’s an opportunity for leadership. Will the real leaders please step forward? I’m ready to follow, and I bet most of your students are too.

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One Response to Reflections on risk, complexity, choice and engagement

  1. “Got engaged learners at your school, regularly challenged with complexity and choices? If not, it’s an opportunity for leadership. Will the real leaders please step forward? I’m ready to follow, and I bet most of your students are too.”

    Challenge students complexity and choices, and there are your leaders.

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