With the exceptions of not having to line up and getting to move from class to class, seniors in high school have the same amount of freedom as first-graders. How can our students grow and develop if they have no room to do it? How can we get more from our students if we expect no more? The typical system we have in our schools today is reminiscent of one big group punishment. Because a few do not have adequate social skills to handle increased freedoms, no one gets the chance.
Very often if young children get into trouble at home, they are told to sit down, do not talk, and sit still. Then they go skipping of to school and are told to sit, do not talk, and be still. Some must believe they are already in trouble! They sit, stuck, wearing invisible leg irons, handcuffs, and neck braces (because you cannot be looking around). It is no wonder that they go crazy at lunch, recess, and between classes. This system makes it very difficult for the principal and teachers. They are asked to be educators, but expected to also be a jailor. Not exactly the reason why you wanted to be a principal or teacher!
Most teachers would like to have a more relaxed, yet active learning environment, but usually do not have students with the skill or experience to function in such a classroom. Even though we know that individual learning is the slowest form of learning and cooperative learning far exceeds it, many teachers gave up trying to use it. It is not because of learning, but because of the students' inability to behave appropriately. This is due to a lack of social knowledge and skill on the part of the students. If we are going to support the use of active instructional strategies, we must help the students learn their role in this type of environment.
To add to the significance of this example, one needs to consider what business has been asking of schools for many years. Business wants employees that can work together, seek help from others, and give help to others. For the most part, schools call this cheating. Our belief in teaching only for academics and punishments will do all the teaching necessary for social skill has caused great harm for students, teachers, and administrators. Punishments will never allow teachers to effectively use cooperative group learning; only teaching students the necessary social skill will.
In a suburban San Antonio intermediate school (4th and 5th grades), the faculty said that one of their biggest headaches was the morning time before classes began. They required all of the students to be in the gym and had many teachers on duty. Every morning there were numerous office referrals and it was not enjoyable for either students of staff. They asked what to do. The response was to ask the students what they wanted and what expectations they needed to place on themselves in order to get it.
The fifth-graders wanted to be allowed to use the schoolyard in the mornings where there was more room and away from the fourth-graders. They provided a list of things they would do to handle this new freedom.
The principal and the fifth-grade teachers agreed to let them try. In the following month, there were no office referrals from the fifth-graders and the fourth-graders (that remained in the gym) were doing much better. The new freedom for the fifth-graders resulted in higher freedom, expectations, and performance. Increased freedom and higher expectations for students as they mature is not only logical, but mandatory if we are going to get higher performance and responsibility.
The example of the fifth-graders gaining a new freedom is a good example of the ability of even younger students to accept and handle new and greater freedoms. Prior to allowing this freedom, the fifth-grade teachers met and devised a lesson on freedoms and limits. Students were very familiar with the term rules, but had not really thought about how everyone has to find a balance between freedoms and limits. An example of this is the freedom to drive but the restriction on speed. Another is freedom of speech but the limitation on threatening speech, lying in court, and yelling "fire" in a theater. Once the students understood the concept of freedoms and limits, they were able to come up with many excellent examples as well.
The main point is that teaching freedoms and limits is needed. This is a deeper concept than obeying rules. It is learning about life. It is about using freedoms within necessary limits. So, the intermediate students asked for the freedom and performed within the necessary and agreed upon limits. The students felt they won. They believed that it was worth living within the limits in order to have this new freedom. Gaining this new freedom resulted in a significant lesson in life. Earning this reward was more meaningful than receiving a typical school or class reward.
This example can be transferred to the previous thoughts on cooperative learning. In most cases, students want to work in groups. If teachers approach cooperative learning with the freedoms and limits perspective, they find that the students assist with its implementation. Students view cooperative learning as a freedom, not another class rule.
Using freedoms appropriately while respecting reasonable limits is the definition of self-control. Only when students gain new freedoms can we increase student expectations. Only with new freedoms comes the learning of new limits. The choice is to continue to force students into following the rules of confinement or become the emancipator. Will some abuse the new freedom? Yes. Will some simply not know how to handle it? Yes. But then we get to teach, problem solve, and build positive relationships and develop self-control.
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