The photo above is the front wall of my school. On the day I stopped by to interview for my position (one of the best career choices I ever made, in my honest opinion), I saw this wall and thought “If I was a few decades younger, I’d try climbing that.”
Indeed, with all of those bricks pushed away from the flat surface, this wall was full of hand holds and toe holds. Perfect for climbing, except for the concrete and asphalt below you.
No, I never tried to climb that wall. After a childhood accident where I fell off a porch railing and broke a wrist I decided not to climb things where I could severely hurt myself. (I did later go cliff diving – repeatedly – but water landings aren’t so bad.)
Flash forward to our school’s end-of-the-year field day celebration. A couple enterprising students looked at that wall and had the same thoughts I had – without the “Oh, we could probably really hurt ourselves” thoughts to go with them.
Fortunately these students were far from unsupervised, and stern words and looks managed to stop them before they got more than a couple feet off the ground.
So what does this have to do with education?
My experience kept me from climbing that wall, and my experience kept those students from doing the same. They hadn’t yet learned that the benefit of climbing that wall (“Look how high I am!” “Look what I can do!”) was overshadowed by the drawback of a potential injury.
Switch gears to a Kindergarten classroom, where the teacher has decided not to let her kids use oil pastels because the benefits of learning a new media do not (in his or her mind) outweigh the drawbacks of potential hard to clean messes.
Switch again to a classroom where students are not allowed to create blogs because the perceived risks (Do I have to list them?) don’t outweigh the perceived benefits.
I’ve seen many teachers, administrators, and parents that thought of climbing a brick wall with no safety gear in the same light as student blogging, cell phones in schools, oil pastels in Kindergarten, or even letting special needs students use scissors.
What’s the difference?
The difference is that we as teachers would be fools to ignore taking proper precautions before a learning activity.
I argue that it’s not the same thing if we keep safety in mind. Let the Kindergarten students use oil pastels after setting out “placemats” (newspaper works fine) and reminding them that when a color is done it goes back in the box. Let students blog in a moderated setting, perhaps even in a “walled garden” environment where only the students, school employees, and parents can see what’s being said.
When a student wants to climb a wall, for goodness’ sake give them a helmet, safety line, and something soft to land on.
Then cheer with them when they see how high they can go.