Overprotective Schools: Less Raising the Bars and More Swinging on Them?

A fellow educator recently directed me to a blog post by Tim Elmore called, When Preventing Hinders Preparing. It is a good and thought-provoking article about the ways parents and others protect kids so much that we might just be hindering their growth and development as resilient and self-reliant people. Experiencing and working through bad things is an important part of a person’s development. I would like to take this idea and apply it more fully to our schools and learning organizations.

In what ways do our schools over-protect students to the detriment of their learning? Schools seem to over-protect by:

  • keeping students in classrooms, rows, and desks;
  • over-directing and over-instructing;
  • having them move from place to place on a set schedule according to bells ringing.

I am concerned about schools protecting kids from:

  • messy learning,
  • losing track of time while immersed in a huge project or problem,
  • geeking out on some project or idea,
  • tinkering and experimenting,
  • wasting their time on frivolous learning,
  • exploring and getting lost on occasion,
  • learning experiences that are hard for teachers to measure and document,
  • charting their own course on occasion,
  • the chance to get a wonderfully askew education,
  • or protecting them from not meeting a neat and tidy list of standards.

In this TEDx video by Scott McLeod called Extracurricular Empowerment, he describes a series of students who are doing, “robust at-home learning with technology.” There are filmmakers, students who use blogs to improve their schools and the world, game designers, and emerging entrepreneurs. McLeod’s critique of schools is that, “we do everything to get tech in the hands of our kids and then we do everything we can to prevent them from using it.” We lock it down, restrict it, and control it. Teachers or administrators sometimes function like puppeteers controlling their puppets, wanting to keep each educational movement in check for the best “performance.” McLeod points to fear as the driving reason for such decisions.  We do it to control and protect young people. In the process, is it possible that we are preventing them from transformational, immersive learning experiences?

I suspect that the over-emphasis upon things like the Common Core standards in K-12 is similar. Note that I see a proper role for them. I’m talking about over-emphasis here. The Common Core and other sets of standards can be helpful guides and benchmarks, but when we start to build entire learning organizations around such things, is it possible that we are doing so out of fear? We don’t want them to get behind or miss some single language arts or math concept that will ruin their lives? Or is it that we want to keep our nation competitive in the global economy?

I have a confession to make. I have an undergraduate degree and three graduate degrees, and I sometimes struggle with concepts that I “should” have mastered in middle school. My 4th grade daughter meets some content area standards when I’m pretty certain that I do not.  When I review state and national standards in different content areas for middle and high school, I know that I do not meet them. Not that I am the prime example of an adult life, but I can say with confidence that I am not alone in this. I know plenty of wealthy, healthy, happy, gifted, creative, entrepreneurial, kind, generous, and/or self-directed people who do not meet some Common Core elementary math and language arts standards. I don’t write this to argue against standards or challenging students to excel academically. I simply share it to point out that people’s lives were not ruined by gaps in learning…not nearly as much as people who were led to believe that they don’t have anything unique to offer to the world, or who were restricted from experimenting, getting messy, and taking some risks.

Maybe we need to reconsider our overprotective practices and policies in schools. Perhaps we want to give students more room to be academically lopsided, spending more time refining their strengths than devoting all of their time to remedying their “deficiencies” as determined by standards and similar measures. Maybe we need more room for messy learning, exploring, experimenting, authentic failure and successes. Could it be that an answer to concerns about student academic achievement in schools is not all about raising the bar, but instead allowing students to playfully swing on the bars of their choice?

I realize that standards-based education is here to stay, and I accept the benefits given by standards (I’m even working on a completely new concept for graduate level standards-based education that I hope to unveil in 2014). I just don’t accept that standards make for a good educational foundation, which seems to happen when we let fears and over-protective approaches shape our schools, classrooms and learning organizations.

Posted in blog, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.