Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Are Today's Students Afraid Of Intellectual Risk?

Source: ASIDE 2013
An increasing refrain from various rungs of the educational ladder is that students are scared to take intellectual risks. Teachers note that pupils are reluctant to guess, to stretch themselves, or to experiment. Perhaps it's a consequence of the "praised" generation, when kids receive trophies for participation and adults shield adolescents from failure. By protecting them from disappointment, however, well-intentioned parents end up insulating children from the experience of trial-and-error. By differentiating just-right reading groups, well-meaning elementary schools end up barring learners from grappling with concepts or language.

Naomi Wolf lamented in The Guardian that "children raised this way are often very nice; but they are notably passive and indecisive." It's no wonder that entrepreneur fairs and maker spaces are sprouting up in schools. Institutions are now forced to "teach" what used to be called "growing up." The joy of tinkering, creating, and imagining have become sources of angst for a generation of safe learners.

Source: ASIDE 2013

The concern is that this hesitancy in intellectual risk will result in hesitancy in life. We've put together the diagram above to graph some of the issues we're wresting with in guiding our students. The different spectra on the "x" and "y" axes represent the different ways people respond to uncertainty and action. Hopefully, by making the dangers of standstill explicit, educators and parents can nudge their kids toward the development of opinions. They can learn to enjoy a cognitive gamble.


(click for larger version)
The classroom should be the incubator of ideas. In a safe learning environment, students can cultivate their own voices. They can wonder. They can make conjectures about cause-and-effect, and they can test hypotheses about future events. One of the glaring symptoms of youthful reluctance is a student's shrug when invited to express a point of view. There is nothing more dispiriting for a teacher when she asks, "Who is your favorite president?" and the child responds, "I don't know." Or when a teacher welcomes a student to draw a picture, and the child anxiously confesses, "I don't know what to draw." The worst-case scenario is that this nervousness about trying something new will lead to resistance to exciting opportunities or retreat from difficult situations.


If children rely on parents or teachers to tell them what to draw or to instruct them in every action, they enter their later years with a motivational delay. They aren't used to reaching their own goals, and this lack of initiative sets up lives without intent. Sometimes the most fulfilling life achievements demand taking chances. Becoming an astronaut or writing a blog requires a certain training and a degree of confidence. Young people who are diffident in aspiration don't leave school equipped with the tools to make plans.


Personal risks seem the least obvious but are actually the most crucial of life's ventures. If students are uncomfortable expressing themselves, how will they stand up for their own beliefs? How will they step outside of themselves and intervene on behalf of others? Outreach is the cure to being a bystander, but teenagers panicky about self-assertion may remain forever insular. If we want our children to be good citizens and defend their values, we need to nurture their self-confidence from the youngest ages.

All of these worries about taking chances remind us of the video called "Growing Up." Created by by Jorge R. Canedo Estrada, Kasey Lum, Marisa Tores, and Alexander Badr, this award-winning clip uses lively visuals to show that the world is not so scary after all. There's lots of excitement to look forward to, and we can help children take the step forward.

Growing Up from Jr.canest on Vimeo.


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