Robert Sapolsky writes, many nursing homes are "a world in which you are often isolated from the social network of a lifetime and in which you have little control over your daily activities, your finances, often your own body. A world of few outlets for frustration, in which you are often treated like a child."
But psychologists have found an interesting way to improve life for nursing home patients: Instead of doing everything for them, just give them more choice and responsibility. Some studies have tried this--control group gets same old stale, passive, totally controlled environment and plant-like existence. Treatment group gets responsibility (and freedom) to choose meals, sign up for activities, care for their own plants, etc. Treatment group gets more active, happier, and healthier. Mortality rates go down.
As I listened to Sapolsky's book, driving home from work, it struck me how much this sounds like school. High school students are a lot like nursing home patients--allowed very little choice and responsibility--"infantilized," as Sapolsky puts it. They are told what to do and how to do it all day long, while at school. I'll never forget one former student who remarked how strange it was to be a manager at Dunkin Donuts and then come to school and have to ask to use the bathroom. For many students, it's demoralizing. Prison-like. Depressing. Stifling. Growth-inhibiting.
We want them to become independent learners, right? We want them to become responsible global citizens, right? Then we give them no independence and dictate how and what they will learn and do every minute of every day? Fortunately, I think the tide is finally turning. For example, in order to score at the highest level of Charlotte Danielson's influential Framework for Teaching Evaluation, a teacher must design lessons where "Activities permit student choice."
Student independence, choice, and self-direction are even more prominent in the CT Common Core of Teaching rubric. And this all makes sense. For one thing, everyone is different, with different learning styles and interests, backgrounds, and levels of motivation and readiness. One-size-fits-all education can't work as well as individualized instruction. And secondly, we all learn best by doing. Giving students independence and responsibility teaches them.. well, independence and responsibility.
And lastly, choice is a lot more fun than dictum. I ran my biology class like this last year, giving students options for every assignment, and I'm building a geology course like this this year. So far, so good. More fun. More interest. Less stress for them. Less stress for me. Next step: Self-created learning plans. (Hopefully, more on that later.)
I've been telling my students for a few years now: "Never ask me to go to the bathroom--just go." This is symbolic of my intention to treat them like young adult human beings, with dignity, choices, freedom and responsibility. With a a good dose of training and guidance, maybe soon I can say to them: "Don't ask me what to do next," because they will have planned it themselves, like Starr Sackstein's students.
I'm willing to bet, with each increment of increased choice, there will be increased interest and happiness. Imagine that: a school full of happier, healthier, motivated, self-directed teens. A dream? Maybe.
Less likely than a nursing home full of happy patients? I don't think so.