Behaviour - Why 'dumb stuff' gets the thumbs-up

17th January 2014 at 00:00
Expert claims risk-taking and mistake-making aid learning

Teachers need to encourage children to do the "dumb stuff" of youth or risk turning their schools into "learning graveyards", a leading child psychologist has said.

Allowing children to be impulsive and reckless helps them to learn more effectively than over-planned lessons, which make schools too homogeneous, according to Dr Chris Thurber, a teacher at one of the US's most elite boarding schools.

"Kids do dumb stuff - it's built into their brains. It's simple biology," Dr Thurber said. "However, safety measures can retard learning when taken to an extreme. There is a three-way balance between protecting young people, engineering outcomes and allowing learning to happen. We can only achieve that balance when we recognise the value of dumb stuff."

Children should not be actively encouraged to do dangerous things, such as skateboarding without pads, but should be given the freedom to make their own mistakes, he added.

Dr Thurber, who teaches psychology at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire - the former school of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg - said that young people's natural compulsion to take risks could be beneficial.

"Is it possible that young people's underdeveloped brains - especially those pesky frontal lobes used for impulse control and hypothetical reasoning - are not deficient at all but evolutionarily advantageous?" he writes in an article to be published in Boarding School magazine. "Doesn't some impulsivity, naivety and recklessness permit youth to take the risks that become the most powerful learning experiences of their lives?

"The collision between adult protectiveness and youth brain development creates a learning graveyard."

Banning balls and running has turned the playground at his son's school into "a hygienic parking lot" that no longer allows children to learn from their mistakes, Dr Thurber writes. Instead, the school relies on posters to reinforce values such as sportsmanship, conflict resolution and sharing, but this fails to provide a real-world context.

Dr Thurber, who also advises US summer camps on child psychology, said that part of the problem was adults trying to exert absolute control over educational experiences, leading them to spend hours "designing lessons and holding students' hands as they step through our mature learning scripts".

"We should spend more time getting out of young people's way, letting them enjoy unstructured free play or supervised exploration and checking in with them when it wraps up," he argues in the article. "Sadly, many schools have become less unique and more like every other experience for young people: over-structured and over-scheduled."

Dr Thurber added that it was also important for adults not to chastise young people who had done stupid things. Instead, teachers should help them to learn from it.

Hilary Moriarty, national director of the UK Boarding Schools' Association, which publishes Boarding School magazine, invited Dr Thurber to speak on the subject at a housemasters and mistresses' conference earlier this month. "It is good to be reminded by an expert that there is more to life than the safe road. Being there to pick (students) up if necessary may be more valuable than making it impossible to fall," she said.

Stuart Raeburn-Ward, pastoral deputy headteacher at Brockhurst and Marlston House, adjacent boarding schools for boys and girls in Berkshire, England, said that a broad range of risk-taking was encouraged there, from swimming in a stream in winter to horse riding.

But he added that students were always involved in carrying out risk assessments for each activity, for everything from fishing to a simple trip to the cinema. "Children should be able to take risks. We don't want to put the kibosh on opportunities to learn and grow, but common sense is our one school rule," he said.

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