Small children on two-wheeled bicycles, ages 3 and 4, with the wind in their hair, smiles on their faces and the open road spread before them, were everywhere in the neighborhood. Sound strange? It’s not a sight you often see in the United States. As I wandered through the streets and parks of Germany one summer, I was awed by the number of young children who were riding balance bikes as their parents watched comfortably from an appropriate distance. The parents didn’t hover or fret over every move, and the children didn’t require training wheels or constant contact. Instead, kids were given the freedom to grow, explore and learn about the world around them.
A Little Less Hand-Holding
Observing this scene over and over in Germany got me thinking about how this mentality relates to education. We all too often hover over our students, providing them with training wheels and carefully standing watch so that they never have a chance to take academic risks or chart their own course in their learning. In American classrooms, teachers usually start lessons with step-by-step directions, instructing and guiding students along the way. We start with the beginning and hold our students’ hands until they get to the end. When we don’t do this, students frequently ask for more guidance: “What do you want it to be like? How many pages? How many words? Do you have a sample?” Our students often fear getting it “wrong” or not doing what the teacher wants. While some scaffolding may be necessary, we also need to give students the opportunity to experiment and learn from the process, not just the final product. The love of learning found through taking academic risks has been forgotten by so many of our students. Bad standardized testing or a micromanaging society may have led to this phenomenon, but the reality is that something needs to change.
Creating Room for Academic Risk
We have a solid foundation for this change in the development of the Common Core State Standards, which allow for fewer, clearer and higher standards for students. These standards encourage important critical thinking and analytical skills. As we continue the implementation of these standards, a process that has become politicized and often conflated with high-stakes testing, it is important that we carefully examine how we can best carry them out in our classrooms. By using the standards as the baseline for what our students must achieve, we can craft lessons where we take a step back from our students and give them the freedom to take academic risks, come to their own conclusions, and learn from the process. The parks in Germany were not the only place where I saw this notion of “free-range parenting.” In the German classrooms I observed, there was a much stronger focus on inquiry-based instruction. For example, in one classroom, a teacher explained to me that students were working on assembling a complex piece of machinery that would dispense a liquid solution. When I asked how they knew what to assemble, the teacher replied:
They had a day to observe the final product. When they came to class the next day, I had taken it apart. Now they have to figure out how to get there. I show them the macro, and they experiment until they figure out the micro. Not all steps will be the same.
There is great power in the idea that not all steps will be uniform. Our students shouldn’t sit in classrooms all performing the same mindless, teacher-directed tasks over and over until they reach proficiency. Instead, we should see students questioning and experimenting without needing us to hover. No two paths on the open road have to be the same. As educators, we should take a cue from German parents and take a step back, ignore the training wheels, and let our students be free to learn, balancing their way with the foundation we have given them.
Karyn Collie Dickerson, a National Board Certified Teacher, was an English teacher at Grimsley High School and the North Carolina Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014. She has taught English at every grade level in grades six-12. Karyn is currently an advisory member on the North Carolina State Board of Education, a member of the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Council, a North Carolina Education Policy ...