Learning as Pushing Boundaries

I watched anxiously as a young boy and girl demonstrated how to make blueberry pancakes from scratch. My anxiety morphed into a mix of incredulity and terror as the boy stuck his hand into the blender’s glass jar to dislodge some bit of batter that was gumming up the works around the blade. I slunk down in my seat, cringed, and waited for the worst to happen.

This was no live demonstration; this was an episode of a children’s television program—an educational program from Germany, to be exact—included in WGBH’s 2007 screening of children’s media from around the world. And in show after show, young people in Europe, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East engaged in daring and possibly dangerous activities that would be unthinkable in America.

Changing cultural norms and parenting styles play a role in the level of risk we as a society are willing to grant students. Fewer parents today than in the past, for instance, believe that children should be seen and not heard, work or assume household chores while in school, or need to work out conflicts on their own.

Young people naturally gravitate toward situations that push boundaries, challenge them, allow for exploration, and give them an opportunity for some measure of heroism or excellence. It might be a seven-year-old sticking his hand into a blender; it might be a seventeen-year-old doing something much more dangerous. And no measure of scaffolding can change that.

As a learning experience designer, I struggle to assess just how much freedom will bring out the best in information-seeking behavior while mitigating its less desirable aspects. Certainly, children—especially younger ones—require adult oversight. But how much is too much? How much is that elusive level of “just right”?

The good news is that this instinct to explore is not inherently a bad thing, fueling genuine, meaningful, and lasting engagements with the world. The less good news is that youth can get harmed in school, but that is rarely the result of exploratory learning (with the notable exception of the exploding cocoa incident).

The psychologist Jerome Bruner suggested that all learning is possible if taught well. It has also been said that the only learning is self-learning—the result of engaging with information, assisted by an experienced individual or group. I like to think that our young pancake chefs were likely extensively schooled in the art of blender use and eased into the process . . . and that an adult was standing nearby, vigilant, off-camera.

Created by: 
Margaret Weigel