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Children must be taught how to think, not what to think. --Margaret Mead
I’ve been hearing way too many claims lately that we should avoid students’ discomfort in school. Every argument against the intentional inclusion of curricular topics like slavery, historical and modern systemic racism, queer identities, and even sexism seems to begin with the same argument: these conversations will make some students uncomfortable. I’ve been in education for over 31 years, and there is one truth I know without a doubt:
Education is not supposed to be comfortable.
I’m not suggesting that education should be eternally and endlessly uncomfortable, of course, a torturous rite of passage the world’s young people must go through, though plenty of students feel like it already is. Students from marginalized communities and identities have long been uncomfortable in schools where they are not the dominant majority, and conversations about identity can generate more discomfort for them than for their majority-culture peers. Whether we are talking about students of color, students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, students with cognitive challenges, or LGBTQ+ students figuring out who they are, school can be a really tough place. It can even feel like the most dangerous place in the world.
I’m a big proponent of happy school cultures where students enjoy engaging in challenge and inquiry. I believe we must foster safe, student-centered schools, environments that offer the conditions necessary for the growth and wellbeing of every single child. But that doesn’t mean students are always comfortable. Obviously, the invitation to step outside of students’ comfort zone should be appropriate to their age and developmental stage, and I’ve always believed in the use of “challenge by choice” so no one is forced to participate, but an education without challenges rarely produces learning. Everything growth-producing in education is designed to challenge students, not just intellectually but artistically, socially, and emotionally. It’s not meant to be terrifyingly challenging, of course, but leaning into fear and discomfort is part of what allows us to learn, whether as young people or adults.
Just like our muscles and bones ache when they grow, the learning process makes our minds and hearts ache sometimes, too. Don’t we all remember experiencing discomfort in school—the fear of participating in a particular activity, of raising our hands to say what we really think, of stepping up to take a leadership role or stepping in when we see a peer being hurt? Don’t we all remember novels that challenged us emotionally, moments in history that took our breath away, or debates that challenged us to argue a perspective we didn’t hold? Whether you were the introvert afraid to participate, the creative thinker who always felt weird in school, or the clutz terrified of physical education class, we are all challenged by school in one way or another because learning is challenging. In my own upbringing, experiential learning outside the schoolhouse posed constant challenges. Whether it was righting an overturned canoe in the middle of a swamp, crossing a swollen river without drowning, interviewing the homeless in downtown Denver, or traveling across the South to learn about its varied cultures, histories and biological ecosystems, every experience was filled with challenges—some of which we could plan for, others we couldn’t foresee. Every learning experience inside the schoolhouse was designed like a wilderness adventure as well, discomfort and overwhelming challenges included. And such schools have been wildly successful, particulary for students who weren’t well served by more traditional “sit and get” forms of schoolhouse instruction.
In our new book, The Landscape Model of Learning, my coauthor Kapono Ciotti and I offer a framework for identifying the appropriate levels of challenge for students, based on all elements of their previous learning, strengths and identities. Recognizing that our students are as diverse and varied as the components of any natural ecosystem, and that every ecosystem needs such diversity to survive, our goal with the landscape model is to cultivate and leverage that diversity, not ignore it or tamp it down with conformity and uniformity (aka standardization). We know we live in an era of standardized education, but we also know that a standardized design hasn’t worked for countless students around the world. Simply put, humans just aren’t standard, and assuming they are is a dangerous form of colonization that ingrains inequities rather than addressing and solving them. When we can understand who students are in deep ways, helping them feel visible and safe as the messy little humans they are, and when we co-construct goals and personalize the pathways to reach them, we can ensure that all students experience productive struggle and the right level of appropriate challenge. It won’t always be comfortable because our goal is to create authentic school cultures that reflect the world beyond the schoolhouse, not cultures that seal students up in a safe little bubble and ignore reality beyond its walls.
I personally believe that schools should collectively strive to foster graduates who can handle frustration, who know how to solve real challenges, who are able to take on hard truths, and who strive to make their communities better. Cultivating young people’s openness to growth, to taking on really hard topics and experiences because they matter, is what schools exist to do. If we do any less, we are not preparing young people for the realities of our times and an uncertain future. And if we intentionally keep young people ignorant by controlling their reading and opportunities to understand different experiences and perspectives, we are ensuring they will be unprepared for the world beyond their schoolhouse walls. As I explored in The Global Education Guidebook, educators need to challenge kids’ thinking, to build learning experiences that require they consider the world from different perspectives, whether globally or locally--or both. When we understand other people’s realities, we are better able to collaborate with them, to understand why our different experiences, values or priorities mean we might address a given challenge differently or view someone's truth through a different lens. And when we fail to understand each other, it becomes inevitable that division and violence will win.
Most of the bullying we see in schools has its origins in perceptions of power and privilege, as interpreted by young people whose brains are still developing. Schools can either perpetuate those perceptions of power and privilege by tamping down real conversations, or they can help young people dismantle their misperceptions and learn to really see each other. Only schools that air the challenges of privilege will be able to do something about it; only schools that address racism and sexism head on will be able to confront and dismantle it, to help students recognize that every experience is valid, even if it’s not their own, to recognize that the accident of birth means our privileges and talents vary, and to see that our diversity actually ensures our survival as a species. These are the first steps toward fostering students who strive to build better, more just societies inside the schoolhouse as much as outside its walls—and who have the knowledge and skills to do so.
Education is not designed to stigmatize any particular group of students, nor to foster their guilt. But it is designed to foster their awareness of the way things work in the world and their local communities, and to foster the skills they need to thrive in that world. Students with privilege are often uncomfortable with conversations about disadvantage because they feel their color or status makes them culpable, just as students who lack privilege can be uncomfortable with conversations that make their disadvantages visible. But if we avoid all the topics that make someone uncomfortable, we’ll never get anywhere. I don’t want to imagine education as a place stripped of all identities and cultures and experiences, a dull and lifeless place where homogeny is the goal, particularly if only the dominant culture is deciding what that homogeny should look like.
Schools should be as vibrant and diverse as the young people and adults who walk their halls, places where we read the hard books and talk about the challenging topics that make up the reality of the human experience, places that mirror natural ecosystems in their interconnectedness and diversity. They should be places where every student feels safe and seen, recognized positively for all they bring to the learning ecosystem. And they should be places where we find joy in being stretched and challenged, where we delight in stepping beyond our comfort zones to connect with our passions, work to improve in our areas of weakness, explore ideas that challenge our assumptions, and dedicate ourselves to the deep, hard work that makes us better community members and people.
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