Future of Learning

A little freedom to fail: Can it counteract helicopter parents?

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Middle school students at Summit Denali work with a teacher in a small group.

A private school in northern California uses technology to create bespoke paths for students and rugged trips – like camping in the winter snow — to teach independence.

“Students are at the boundary of comfort zones,” said Taylor Simmers, a co-founder of the school. “We use it to push intellectual boundaries and the physical boundaries.”

Giving students room to make their own choices, and sometimes make mistakes, school leaders say, is meant to be an antidote to the trend of so-called helicopter parents who micro-manage every decision. The school is popular with parents in Silicon Valley.

And as of this school year teachers and students at this elite school will log in to a computer system created in a public school and supported by a team of Facebook engineers.

+Impact School at Tahoe Expedition Academy, a small school that takes students on trips to Peru and to the offices of business executives, joins a growing – and diverse — network of schools that are sharing ideas and resources across boundaries that have typically separated educators. The computer-based system, founded at Summit Public Schools in Silicon Valley, has grown to 120 more schools nationwide this year. (Read this story in The Hechinger Report for a deep dive into Summit schools.)

Teachers, students and parents in these schools log in online to programs that allow them to share materials, lessons, tests and information quickly and efficiently. Students, for example, can move at their own pace through subject areas. Parents can see how their children are progressing – and how far they need to go to reach the year’s goals. And teachers can reach into a virtual filing cabinet to pull shared lessons on a variety of subjects, allowing them to reach students with high-quality tailored lessons.

Summit, which has earned accolades for its attention to student achievement and emotional well-being, was the first to use the system. Schools that joined them in the online platform were given access to curated lists of lessons. And the sharing inside the network goes more than one way. The educators joining the group upload lessons to share that Summit educators can now use, too.

It also means a public school in rural Texas, for example, can access lesson materials used by students in +Impact School at Tahoe Expedition Academy. One theme in those materials is the idea of “constructive adversity.” That means allowing children to try things that push them to the limits of where they feel comfortable – such as rock climbing, a trip to Peru or an overnight adventure in a National Park.

It might be difficult for cash-strapped public schools to offer these kinds of trips, but they can still pull from the bigger idea, school leaders said, and find a local adventure that’s relevant to their community.  The leaders of +Impact say they hope to learn how that might work by seeing how public schools use their ideas. They are the first independent school to share within the network.

“That’s why our name is ‘plus’ impact,” said head of school Mark Kushner, of +Impact. “I am always thinking about how do we help?”

That’s one way that educators can use technology to collaborate in ways that would have been nearly impossible when we shared information on paper, on floppy disks or in-person training programs.

They are preparing students to work and live in a world where that’s the norm.

“We have entered into the creation age,” Simmers said. “Everyone has information access. What we need are graduates to do is be creators more than consumers.”

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is the senior editor for audience engagement and a writer. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online… See Archive

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