When Does It All Change?


Many times when I ask my college students a question in class, I’m just left with a lot of dead air and averted gazes. Eventually someone will answer, and then a few minutes later, the process will repeat itself.

My wife, a nursery school teacher, tells me it’s the exact opposite in her classroom. When she asks a question, every hand goes up – even if some of the kids don’t know the answer or even what the question was! And once someone answers, all of the other kids still want their voice to be heard.

So what happens between the age of 4 and 18? Why are young children so invested in the classroom experience, but by the time they reach college, that excitement has faded away, often quite dramatically.

Ken Robinson points this out in his great TED talk:

 … kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original — if you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. 

I just wonder when and where students get frightened of being wrong. I can’t imagine a teacher or a parent creating such an environment, at least not consciously. Perhaps it’s too much of a focus on testing that creates such pressure. Or perhaps it’s hormonal or peer pressure.

 It would be a fascinating study if someone could track a group of children from pre-school to college freshmen, and monitor each student’s level of class participation every year. While there would be way too many variables that could affect the results, perhaps such a study could at least paint a broad picture of what is happening in the classroom.

But no matter the cause, the results can be devastating, according to Ken Robinson:

“And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.

College has become like a job for them. Just tell them what to do, and they will do it. Raising your hand in class is viewed as too risky; what if you say the wrong thing? It’s easier to just sit there. And I was just as guilty when I was in college. I tried to sit in the back row of every class, and to never say a word all semester. I now look back on such behavior as a lost opportunity.

I’ve also noticed in my classes when I do get the rare student who likes to share his or her thoughts on a frequent basis that such participation is often met with a few eye rolls and shakes of the head from other students. So not only do some students not want to participate themselves, they don’t like it when other students do.

As a teacher, I am thrilled when I have someone who likes to speak up in class. Many times it doesn’t even matter what they have to say, it’s just the fact that they are engaged.

Having a room full of students like that seems like nirvana.

No wonder my wife comes home so happy every day from school.



4 thoughts on “When Does It All Change?

    1. Thanks! What I’ve also noticed, and someone made this comment on Facebook, is that this excitement about learning returns. I noticed it when I went back to school in my late 40s – I couldn’t stop raising my hand, much to the dismay of the rest of the class, I’m sure.


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