Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Vacation Reflection – Handing Over Control To The Kids

Learner-led learning

One of the highlights of my trip to San Diego last week was a day at the San Diego Zoo.  The place is amazing, encompassing over 100 acres with over 4,000 rare and endangered animals.  However, my post is less about what I saw and more about how I saw it.  You see my guide at the park was a seven-year old.
Unfortunately, I cannot claim this idea as my own. My travel companion made the executive decision to give control (the map) to the kids.  On Wednesday a nine-year old led the way during our day at an amusement park and Thursday, it was the youngest member of our group’s turn.  As a dad of three who has micromanaged many a trip, I have to admit that I felt much less pressure and found the experience much more enjoyable with the power of managing the day handed over.
As the day progressed, I started to dwell on how this handing over of control correlates with what we need to do in our schools. I was reminded of a book I read on Sudbury Valley School over 20 years ago titled Free at Last.  The book, written by school founder Daniel Greenberg, highlighted the extremely progressive approach taken at the school where students literally chart their course each day.  The school’s website describes the learning process as follows:
Through self-initiated activities, they pick up the basics; as they direct their lives, they take responsibility for outcomes, set priorities, allocate resources, and work with others in a vibrant community.
I have to admit, as a product of a very traditional upbringing and education, this whole idea sounded crazy to me when I first heard about it in my postgraduate studies. But as each day passes in my current role as the Principal of a traditional high school, I find much about the way we function to be equally crazy.
My lovely travel companion summed things up quite nicely: ”It was a great day. Instead of dragging the kids around they led the way.”
Are we just dragging our kids around in school to places they really have no interest in going? What if we just gave students maps with endpoints and let them choose their preferred routes of travel?  Haven’t we seen enough evidence that one standard route of travel for all is the exact opposite way to go?  Will public schools make a substantive move in this direction or will we become more and more irrelevant to our students?
Finally, a personal question for myself. Why does it take me so long to make these connections?


  1. What can I say? A great post, full of powerful insights and metaphors of learning...all from such a simple action of letting go. I agree that it would be wonderful if we could get to this point in our design of schools. It is happening in some pockets up here in Canada, mainly at the secondary school level. But your post reminds us that kids of all ages can be valuable guides.

    I have a four year old and a two year old at home. One of my favourite questions to ask when we're out and about is, "What do you see? There hasn't been one time in the past four years where I haven't received an answer. And you know something? Invariably, "what they saw" was different than what I would have had them see if I were directing their vision. Hmmm...


  2. Thanks Stephen with three kids of my own, I am constantly wondering about the same thing and worried that the traditional schooling they will receive will change this as Ken Robinson describes in his talk on divergent thinking.