Choice and Learning, Part I: First, the Easy Stuff

For high school?  For life?  I say yes to both, of course… but, more specifically, I’d say we’re preparing our students to make the best choices in high school and in life.

The end game in education is equipping students with the knowledge, skills, habits, and values to make the best possible choices, now and—especially—as independent adults.  They may be practical academic choices (Are you choosing to start a new paragraph when you want to write about a new idea?).  They may be choices beyond academics (Do you choose to pass the ball or do you take the shot when the defenders are in a particular position?).  Regardless, in all of the experiences that our education offers, it all comes down to students learning how to make the best choices in everything they do.

We also know that the best way to prepare them isn’t simply through lecturing or reading about hypothetical future choices.  We can repeatedly tell everyone exactly what they ought to do in the event of a fire.  We can even write step-by-step fire evacuation procedures to follow when needed.  However, if we really want to ensure people are the safest and best prepared for a fire, we ought to do regular fire drills.  We ought to make them not simply listen or read about “what they ought to do if…” but instead actually have them “practice doing when…”  Nothing beats learning by doing.

So, as part of their education with us, we give our students more and more opportunities to actually practice making choices. After they do, we try to reaffirm the good choices so they become permanent, and help them recognize incorrect choices so they make different ones in the future.  More often than not, learning the right choices requires them first to make incorrect choices... sometimes repeatedly.  We give students lots of opportunities to make mistakes.

One caveat on giving opportunities to make mistakes… we know that developmentally as the brain forms throughout childhood, there are different expectations we ought to place on children at different times.  Four year-olds don’t get a steak knife with their dinner; we don’t hand 12 year-olds the keys to the car when they want to go to a friend’s house, etc.  We must first be reasonably confident that their brain is developmentally ready to handle the choices we are offering them, assured that if they make the inevitable poor choice as part of the learning process, they won’t cause permanent harm to themselves or others.  This is why (among many reasons) we don’t actually light the building on fire when we do a fire drill.

This all probably seems reasonable, logical, and uncontroversial.  However, if everything was simple, my job as headmaster would be a lot easier!  One of the most difficult aspects of my job involves how we navigate this intersection choice and learning, applying all of the uncontroversial theoreticals above to the reality of real children, with real emotions, real families, and real consequences. 

How many incorrect choices do we allow a student to make before we begin evaluating whether our approach is insufficient for his or her needs?  What do we do when we disagree with a parent about the amount of independent choice we offer?  How do we teach the best lessons if someone makes the wrong choice for the right reasons… or the right choice for the wrong reasons?  What happens in the “this-is-not-a-drill” moments when negative impact—maybe even some kind of harm—is involved in allowing an incorrect choice… if it’s not permanent harm, is it okay?  What if that negative impact is on others, and not on the person learning the lesson?

In my next few blogs, I’ll offer my thoughts some of these topics.  The intersection of choice and learning and the “power of yet” that motivates us at STS might make perfect sense in a blog, but they can sometimes feel very complicated “in real life,” particularly for children and parents…and headmasters!  Stay tuned!


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