Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Pitfalls of Free-Range Teaching

Today, Free-Range Parenting has become popular among young parents.  Instead of establishing boundaries for children, parents allow children to explore life and learn from their mistakes.  When I began my career as a teacher forty years ago, a similar approach to teaching was popular.  Workshops encouraged teachers to allow students to discuss rules and consequences and create classroom rules that all of the students could agree on with appropriate consequences.  The teacher behaved only as the facilitator and the students democratically created their own learning environment.  It sounds good, but it doesn't work. First, it wastes valuable teaching time, second, it jeopardizes the physical and emotional safety of other students and third, it does not prepare students to live in the real world.

The first problem with Free-Range Teaching is there are a plethora of learning skills the teacher is responsible to teach and a limited amount of time to accomplish it.  Having students reach a consensus on anything takes a lot of time.  Time that could better be spent learning skills that would serve the student  It is more time effective for the teacher to develop boundaries for the students to learn in a safe, inviting climate than to spend a week of learning time discussing if students should be in their seats or near their seats when the bell rings.  Furthermore, teachers have classrooms filled with thirty to forty students.  Imagine the chaos if each of those students were discovering their own behavioral limits, Nothing would be accomplished.  Classroom rules need thought. A teacher should create a few general rules that safeguard learning and student safety with reasonable consequences.  Too many rules and too specific rules both confuses students and provides ideas for the creative young mind to challenge.  There is no way to develop a rule for every possible scenario, so general rules are more effective.

The second problem with Free-Range Teaching is students who are exploring their environment are either making it impossible for others to learn or making others feel uncomfortable and unsafe.  One year an associate teaching The Diary of Anne Frank proposed a learning activity where half of the class would be superior to the other half of the class.  The superior half could ridicule, misuse and abuse the other half without consequences. She was hoping the students would understand the Jewish experience in Europe under Nazi rule.  Fearing that worse, I went to the principal and begged him to intervene, because adolescents enjoy bullying and I was certain that this project would end with a student either physically or mentally injured.  Fortunately, he agreed and stopped the project before it began.  The problems with eliminating boundaries is children are self-centered and do not recognize how their behavior affects others.  It is the responsibility of the adult to protect other children.  Eventually, these students will move up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and become developmentally  capable of empathizing with others. Children and adolescents are often amused by the pain they can inflict on weaker students. It empowers them.  Unfortunately students who are bullied, don't feel safe or comfortable in school.  When a child does not feel safe, it is difficult for him/her to concentrate or learn.    The negative feeling can ultimately cause them to avoid school altogether.  When I was teaching in California, a young lady was ridiculed and assaulted by a group of boys while walking home from school.  The girl did not return to school for a week.  When I learned what had happened I discussed the events with the  principal who felt that since it did not happen on school property, it was not his jurisdiction.  Since the young men were allowed to attend school without consequences, the girl was denied her educational rights.  As educators, we need to insist that rules are followed to protect the rights of all students.

The third problem with free-range teaching is it does not prepare students to live in the real world. People live in a world where there are rules.  Learning to accept and follow the rules of society is also an important learning skill.  Few of us make the rules of our society or live in a world where we can explore the consequences of our choices unhampered by rules.  Rules should be designed to help students be successful and safe.  There are those who say that learning from mistakes and making decisions about the classroom rules teaches students to govern themselves. Although that sounds effective and their may be some value to it, it is not going to help the child when he loses his first job because he believes punctuality is unnecessary or honoring the company's dress code is obsolete. None of us live in a vacuum. The choices we make affect others, so trusting that everyone follows the rules is imperative. If the child never learns to follow rules established by an outside authority, he/she is going to have a difficult time with authority figures. 

Finally, what gives the teacher the right to create the rules?  That is an essential part of the responsibility of being a teacher.  That is the primary role of the parent; that is the primary role of the teacher.  Being in charge, is never easy, but if the teacher behaves as if he/she is unsure of the classroom expectations, the students will lose respect for the teacher and the class will run amuck. When my daughter was in sixth grade, I received a phone call from the principal of her school.  "Jill," Mrs. Puhr said, "I have to share this with you.  There was a paint fight in the art room when a substitute was present and I called each student in one at a time to learn who was involved.  When I asked your daughter, Jeanette, who was responsible, she said, 'The teacher. She told all of us to do whatever we wanted when we finished our assignment, and when you are in the sixth grade, a paint fight might be just what you wanted to do'" After Mrs. Puhr and I finished laughing she said, "You know she is right."  Young children often are not capable of making good decisions. They need leaders. The role of the teacher or the parent is the leader, so be a good leader.