Another big theory in educational circles is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. This is the sweet spot where something is just challenging enough that the student can rise to the challenge and grow, but not so challenging that they surrender to frustration. It is sometimes mentioned by its shorthand, i+1, i being the student’s current understanding, and 1 being that one step above.
At Sudbury schools, like anything else, the Zone of Proximal Development is self-controlling. Students are constantly pushing themselves into their “i+1,” trying to get that little bit better at
their current activity. And here, our age-mixing especially helps. It’s easy to find someone a year or two older, someone who’s just that little bit better at reading or just that little bit better at
throwing a ball, or whatever other skill our student is trying to master at the time.
There’s no need to engineer or manipulate our kids into the Zone of Proximal Development. They’re constantly there.
...The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools. In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day - than do kindergarteners. Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.
When parents ask, “What did you do in school today?”, kids often respond, “Nothing.” Howard Gardner pointed out that they’re probably right, because “typically school is done to students.” This sort of enforced passivity is particularly characteristic of classrooms where students are excluded from any role in shaping the curriculum, where they’re on the receiving end of lectures and questions, assignments and assessments. One result is a conspicuous absence of critical, creative thinking – something that (irony alert!) the most controlling teachers are likely to blame on the students themselves, who are said to be irresponsible, unmotivated, apathetic, immature, and so on. But the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.
Reflections on Motivation, Learning, and Sharing Power
Research Issues in Problem Solving
David H. Jonassen, D.Ed.
University of Missouri, USA
The most important cognitive goal of education (formal and informal) in every educational context (public schools, universities and corporate training) is problem solving….I present the following warrants.
First, problem solving is the most authentic and therefore the most relevant learning activity that students can engage in. In everyday contexts, including work and personal lives, people solve problems constantly. No one in personal and professional contexts is rewarded solely for memorizing information and completing examinations. Problem solving is an essential “21st century skill,” specifically the ability to solve different kinds of non-familiar problems in both conventional and innovative ways and to identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions (http://www.21stcenturyskills.org).
Second, research has shown that knowledge constructed in the context of solving problems is better comprehended, retained, and therefore more transferable. When solving problems, students must think more critically. Also, the learning is situated in some authentic context, which makes it more meaningful.
Third, problem solving requires intentional learning. Learners must manifest an intention to understand the system or context in which problems occur in order to solve problems effectively. Meaningful learning cannot occur until and unless learners manifest an intention to learn. All human behavior is goal-driven. The clearer our goals are for learning, the more likely we are to learn meaningfully and mindfully.
Fourth, knowledge that is recalled and not used in some authentic tasks is too quickly forgotten, cannot be effectively applied, and in most disciplines becomes obsolete in a short time. Therefore, the primary purpose of education should be to engage and support learning to solve problems.
I confess, my ten year old son is a gamer. He plays video games as many as four to eight hours a day, every day. And when he is not playing, he is thinking about games. He reads magazines about video games, watches TV shows about video games, reads novels based on the characters in video games, researches background information about video games, checks user and critic ratings on video games, and posts on community message boards about video games. He can recall from memory which developer made a specific game, what company distributed it, and the year it came out. He has a few other interests as well, including ancient history, weaponry, and animals. But his clear passion right now is gaming.
The fact that he attends a Sudbury school means that he has the freedom to play video games during the day at school. This is not a solitary activity - he often includes his friends in the gameplay, and they take turns playing and watching each other play or they help each other when the game becomes too challenging. Often one will have the laptop open, searching for walkthrough instructions or YouTube videos of gameplay, while the other has the controller listening for directives about how to solve a puzzle or defeat a boss. They collaborate on missions in some games, or square off as opponents in others. They often recommend games to each other, or trade titles to play at home on weekends.
Most parents would tell me that I am crazy to allow my son to spend so much time gaming. They would say that I should limit his game time, and I definitely should NOT allow him to play games at school. They have the impression that I am somehow damaging my child by allowing him to follow his passion, simply because that passion is gaming. As a Sudbury parent, I believe in freedom as part of the basis of education. I believe that children learn best those things that are of interest to them. And I believe that if we say we are going to provide students with the freedom to discover and pursue their passions, then we cannot draw a line and separate what we perceive as a “good” passion (allowed) from a “bad” passion (not allowed).
Two decades ago as a teenager I was criticized for being a “bookworm”, for spending all of my time alone in my room, with my nose in a book. I was told I was wasting my time and I should be “outside doing something.” These are the same criticisms that are heard by gamers today. The fact is that many parents are ignorant about video games. What they do not understand they cannot support. Just as choices in books include classic stories with engrossing plotlines as well as those that are poorly written with disappointing endings; choices in games include those that are well-made, interesting and engaging, as well as some that are repetitive, boring, and unnecessarily gruesome. Just as some books are controversial, with exposure to topics such as homosexuality, war, or racism, some games are violent, bloody, and feature senseless and repetitive killing.
But for every game that showcases pointless violence, there is another that has amazing visual artwork, creative puzzles, and absorbing stories. My son will not play a game that isn’t well made – he just doesn’t enjoy playing if it isn’t interesting. This is similar to my own aversion to Harlequin romance novels. Reading isn’t something one does just because there are words on a page, and gaming is the same way – not every game is worth playing. Some people love role playing games, some prefer puzzle games, some like first person shooters, etc. And within every genre there are ‘good’ games and ‘bad’ games. Many parents’ only knowledge of games is the mental picture they have when they think of Halo – with lots of guns and shooting and killing of enemies in a war-like setting. And plenty of kids, including my son, enjoy playing Halo. But that’s not the only game on the market.
Getting back to reading, consider that one of the most popular authors of contemporary novels in the last decade is James Patterson. Since 2006 Patterson has sold nearly 220 million copies of his novels worldwide. He tends to write books in series – one series is entirely about a detective working to solve serial murders (which are quite gruesome and described in graphic detail), and another focuses on a group of kids that were bred in a laboratory and subjected to scientific experiments that left them 98% human and 2% aviary. That last series is marketed specifically for ‘young readers.’
So, playing a video game that portrays war scenes against aliens (including green blood) is very bad and may cause irreparable harm to society, but reading book after book about senseless murder sprees and scientific experiments performed on human children is ok. I just don’t see the sense in that statement. Of course, some parents would argue that although they encourage their children to read, they would not allow them to read books like those by James Patterson. I suppose instead they might allow controversial classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (racism), To Kill a Mockingbird (racism), A Wrinkle In Time (witchcraft, demons), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (rape), Catcher in the Rye (vulgar language, sexual scenes), or The Color Purple (sexual explicitness).
Parents are concerned about exposing their children to violence through video games, and the effect it may have on their future behavior. But despite decades of research, there is no proven link between video game violence and real-world violence. If violent entertainment caused real violence, logic would dictate that the violent crime rate would have skyrocketed in recent years. In fact, exactly the opposite occurred: Violent crime has dropped significantly over the past 20 years—just as video games have become more prevalent and more violent. In fact, one could make the (equally illogical) argument that violent video games actually decrease violent crimes.
Few parents are aware that there IS a proven link between gaming and the development of inherent resiliency in children, that games facilitate strong social bonds, that gamers are more likely than non-gamers to serve a larger cause and to collaborate with others, or that gaming is an excellent way to improve problem-solving and cognitive skills. Perhaps the ultimate example of the potential benefits of gaming is the very recent discovery of the structure of a molecular protein that may hold the key to finding a cure for AIDS. Scientists had been struggling for over a decade to solve this biological riddle, but after the University of Washington created and distributed a video game designed to leverage the ingenuity and spatial reasoning abilities of gamers, the puzzle was solved in just ten days.
Violence does not appeal to me, and I’m not personally a fan of video games (or any games) in general. But I know that following his passion is what inspires my son to learn and inquire and investigate. Through video games he has become interested in Renaissance Italy, Israeli martial arts, Greek and Roman mythology, dark humor, physics, brain teasers, and The Divine Comedy, to name a partial list.
Kids sometimes have interests that serve as nothing more than a platform to inspire. The art of dance is a perfect example. Those who are passionate about dance will practice for endless hours, patiently watch others dance, and choreograph steps in their spare time. They will beg for dance lessons and dream of attending a dance academy. In reality only a very tiny percentage of these fervid dancers will achieve a career in the dance industry. In fact they are risking serious injury and possible heartbreak by immersing themselves so deeply in their one true obsession. Yet it is doubtful parents will say their dancing should be limited, or that they are wasting their time. In fact adults look to these students with appreciation – how wonderful that they are studying the arts, developing their creativity, learning about dedication and perseverance. They function within a community of others who share the same passion; they are focused, determined, engaged and interested. All the things most parents would want for their child. These dancers are developing characteristics that will translate into success in adulthood.
Likewise, my son will practice gaming for endless hours, patiently watch others play, and dream up new story lines in his spare time. He is developing his creativity and learning about dedication and perseverance. He participates in a community of others sharing the same passion. He is focused, determined, engaged and interested. And the development of his character through gaming is not much different than the dancer, aside from the criticism and disapproval of adults.
I titled this article “The Case Against Video Games” because I wanted people to read it. The truth is that in our home, there is no case against video games. My son is happy, healthy and well-adjusted. He loves school, his friends and his dog. He is friendly, talkative and intelligent. He is not violent or temperamental. And he is a gamer.
Post Script: This article was written two years ago, when my son had been a Sudbury student for about two years. Now age 12, he has since moved away from gaming as his primary activity at school. He's still interested in video games, but now he spends more time reading and learning languages. He speaks a little Indonesian and a little more Italian, and his most recent Kindle download is The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I point this out because many parents assume that if they fail to limit their child's access to technology then the child will never become interested in other things. In fact, sometimes even video games get boring.
Screen time is another baseless concern we run into when we explain our model. The idea is that if kids have too much time - in some cases, any time - in front of screens such as computers and televisions, it will be somehow bad for the kids. They never seem to be able to articulate exactly how or why it will be bad for their children. Only that it will.
It’s another one of those memes that gets suggested, then accepted without critical thought. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest that exposure to a laptop or a tablet will cause any kind of physical or psychological harm. Yet a great many parents fear it, because others fear it.
Students use the internet to study information that interests them. Also to socialize with others about what they find. Video games, too, are social, as are movies. And every study on the subject shows that violent fiction in video games and movies has a negative correlation with real world violence, not the positive correlation that so many people fear. Far from being dangerous, screen time is helpful.
Furthermore, it’s not all they do. Our kids spend time in front of screens, yes. Then they get up and do other things. We don’t have to force them.
We don’t worry about irrational fears like screen time at Sudbury schools. Like everything else harmless, we let each child decide.
The following post is by Abbe Vogels, founding staff, Rising Tide School, from the Rising Tide School Blog. Read more Rising Tide blog posts here http://risingtideschool.wordpress.com/
Each day at Rising Tide School, there are moments of struggle, learning, friendship, and creativity that take my breath away. Arriving at school in the morning, students are relaxed, expectant, eager. At the close of the day they are satisfied, stretched, and ready for more. When I worked as a top-down educator (“I tell you what to learn”), transcendent moments were rare or non-existent. Cooperation and harmony were absent. People resisted what I had to teach them, and most people, including many of the educators, would rather have been somewhere else. At best it was tolerable; at worst it was dreadful. This was true despite the best intentions of everyone in the system. So what is the missing piece? What gives Sudbury its magic? And why, despite its effectiveness and the happy results, does our culture resist the Sudbury way of learning?
In a recent meeting with a graduating student, I heard an insightful explanation. The young woman was talking about the fears she had been facing around her thesis defense and her upcoming shift to independent adult life. She had been full of self-doubt and fear in the early part of the year, comparing herself to others and judging herself negatively. Even when people in the school saw her positively and reflected that back, she hadn’t been able to see the positive things in herself. However, through some recent adventures, things had shifted dramatically for her. She had realized that she had to love herself, know who she really was, and be herself in the world. She said that she should be pointing out her positive aspects and achievements to others and not the other way around, and that now she could do that. She was full of confidence, power, and was able to clearly express the many, many achievements and successes she had created during her time at the school. No longer comparing herself and coming up short, she was celebrating who she is and the contributions she would make in the future.
She had reached what I’ve come to think of as the Sudbury turning point—the point at which someone really understands, at the experiential level, their own power, goodness, and innate gifts. Once people get that, there’s no turning back. As they gather evidence of their own effectiveness in the world, they become fully prepared to launch into the larger community and to fulfill their greatest dreams over time.
What we need to understand is that self-love, self-confidence, and self-knowledge are a prerequisite for a fully-lived life. They are not add-ons to be explored “someday” or “when I’ve finished all my work.” This longing to be who we are really can be stuffed, or ignored, or ridiculed. But it doesn’t go away. If we really want it all—happiness, positive relationships, and the ability to do our great work in the world—we’ve got to look in the right places. Top-down education can do nothing for us if we don’t know and honor who we are.
Here is the missing piece: Who you are is more important than what you know. Skills can be learned. What doesn’t work is training for a narrow, arbitrary set of skills (i.e. Common Core Standards), and ignoring the people we are inside. For success, for happiness, for health, for everything that makes life worth living–we need to look in, not out. Standards won’t help us get there. Time, space, struggle, and friendship will. A Sudbury school is an optimal environment to begin the lifelong inquiry—who am I, and how can I serve? It’s an optimal place to become empowered, and to create the lives that we were meant to live.
If Sudbury works, and consistently produces stunning results, why do we resist? Why do we dismiss? Why do we say it’s too “out there” and stop listening?
We’ve simply trained ourselves to value the things that won’t make us happy—being like everyone else and playing it safe. We haven’t yet learned to fully value ourselves and to fully trust in our own, or our children’s, power. Time and time again I see children lining up the perfect learning experiences from life’s array of possibilities. The right teachers teach and the right lessons are learned. The turning point comes for everyone who is allowed the time to get to it. It is possible, and it is happening, right here in our community. I hope that, for the sake of our children and our world, we can culturally reach a collective turning point—realizing our own power and goodness and trusting our ability to thrive in a changing world. Then we can honor our children by seeing the same in them, and giving them the gift of freedom to launch in their very own way.
Liam Marshall-Butler is currently a student at MLSS.