Risking to Learn
By Wendy Priesnitz
I was a good student in school – or at least wise in the ways of memorizing and playing the test taking game, and quiet enough that teachers liked me. In other words, I got good marks. But school seldom, if ever, drew me out of my comfort zone, didn’t challenge me, and certainly never required me to take risks. More than that, I learned that I could survive – at least in that false environment, which at the time I didn’t realize was false – by playing it safe. As an adult, I realized that I wanted to do more than just survive, and that I wanted to develop my creativity. That’s when I realized that I needed to learn how to take risks and to deal with challenges. I’ve learned to overcome my risk aversion, and hope even to enjoy risk someday.
I think that in many ways I would have been a good candidate for learning at home, and have often wished that I’d been given that opportunity as a child. Most of what I actually learned came not from my school lessons from my voracious reading outside of school hours. But, since neither of my parents had much formal schooling, they revered the institution and their goal was for me to become a teacher. Learning at home as the only child of nervous older parents probably wouldn’t have built my risk-taking muscles anyway.
Unlike both my childhood home and school, the life learning environment in which my daughters grew up supported the risk-taking, questioning, and mistake-making processes by providing physical, intellectual, and emotional security.
Ironically, one of the criticisms I’ve heard most often as an unschooling advocate is that home-educated kids are coddled and won’t be able to cope with life’s risks and dangers, that they won’t know how to function in the real world. The reality, of course, is actually the opposite. In daycares and schools today, kids are being coddled like never before, on a physical level due to the fear of accidents and the attached liability, and academically in order to meet standards imposed by governments and parents. And that’s too bad because risk-taking is basic to learning and to living in that “real world.”
One local government in the U.K. has realized there is a problem with that and posted information on its website outlining the dangers of removing risk from the lives of children. They state that: “If we persist in attempting to protect our children from all risks, we may find that future generations are risk illiterate. A nation of youngsters shielded from any challenges because of the risk of accident will be unable to cope with risk when they become adults.” There is also a concern that children and young people have, as a result, greater difficulty than previous generations in bouncing back from problems, that is, they have become less resilient.
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) gained notoriety (and a new career as an advocate of allowing kids less supervision and more risk) in 2008 for allowing her nine-year-old son to ride the New York subway unaccompanied. She argues that childhood is supposed to be about discovering the world, not being held captive.
Discovery is one of the fundamentals of learning. And while it requires the physical freedom that life learning kids have and those in school are denied, it also requires a non-threatening environment in which self-esteem can flourish. Then children are comfortable enough to take risks and make mistakes.
We can create that environment and keep our children safe at the same time with a combination of trust and participation. That can be seen at work if we look at two different ways in which a parent can help a child learn about fire. In a paper presented in 2005 to a Systems Design conference in Hawaii,* four scientists used that example in examining the problems with eliminating risk. They suggest one scenario which has a young child picking up a match, the parent becoming frightened, displaying their fear to the child, and hurriedly removing the match from the child. From that sequence of behaviors, the child gets the simple message that a match, and by extension fire, is dangerous and to be feared (but not that it can be safely managed). In an alternative scenario, the parent observes that his child is playing with a match, and supervises the process, allowing the child to feel its heat while engaging him in a discussion about fire and heat, thereby allowing him to learn about fire, while developing a healthy respect for and understanding of its very real dangers.
I believe that our society fears not learning to read in the same way it fears fire...and we communicate that fear to kids in the same non-productive way. In schools, reading instruction is done in a high pressure, performance-oriented environment, in which kids recoil from taking the risks and making the mistakes that are part of learning. Their classroom peers correct or laugh at every mistake, and the teacher all too eagerly hovers, prompting, correcting, labeling, and marking. On the other hand, when life learning parents respect and support children’s ability to learn to read on their own, the process can be just as effortless and as exhilarating an adventure as learning to walk or talk was.
Some kids will conduct their reading activity in your presence and out loud – possibly needing the physical security of sitting close. And you will follow their lead, supporting and encouraging, responding with interest – just like you did when they started putting sounds together to make speech – and answering questions when asked. Other kids learn to read in relative silence, mostly working it out within their own head. You will respect that by not interfering with demands of regular demonstrations of what the child prefers to keep private. You’ll still notice that she is making more and more sense out of printed language, reading road signs and package labels. And you still will be doing your part by reading in her presence and to her, and by surrounding her with print materials of all sorts.
Gever Tulley, the author of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), understands that we all learn by “fooling around.” In 2005, he founded a camp called the Tinkering School, where he puts power tools in the hands of young kids and teaches them how to build things. Unlike me, Tulley was fortunate to grow up in a world full of adventures. He says that he and his big brother were free to explore their environment and invent their own projects while growing up. Their curiosity was encouraged by their parents, who instilled early on a sensible approach to their experiments. He points out that while there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger. (Remember the playing with matches scenarios I described above?) “Most of us learn how to walk without toppling over at a very young age, so that walking is no longer dangerous. Next we learn to negotiate stairs. Why stop there? Why not practice and become proficient at walking on the roof or walking on a tightrope?”
Sure, those things might sound risky. But one of the ways that I learned not to become my fretting mother was to ask myself what could go right with my daughters’ adventures, as well as what could go wrong. That helped me separate my own fear baggage from reality, freeing me to help them assess each situation and its possible consequences. Often, I realized that the worst that could happen would be them learning how to problem-solve themselves out of a mess!
The concept of mistake-making is foreign to a young child, who is continually experimenting with language, movement, and everything else in his path. But the idea is quickly planted by people and circumstances. Although we can’t change that, we can help our kids avoid the self-consciousness that results and that can paralyze exploration and creativity. A good way to do that is to share our own “mistakes” and model treating them as our own learning experiences. Oops! Maybe we’ll all eventually learn to relish risk.
* Understanding the Effect of Risk Aversion on Risk by Bhatt, Newman, Carreras, and Dobson (IEEE, 2004)
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s editor, the author of twelve books, and the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school.