As I was teaching about the road to Revolution last week, I asked if there could be too much liberty. The discussion bounced around for awhile and then I thought we should test out the concept. Can there be too much liberty? There were only about four minutes left in class but I thought we could try. I told the students that they could do whatever they wanted to do. They looked at me oddly. Two students walked out but left their books and other items.One student packed all of her things and left. The others milled about and kept wondering if I was serious. They would look at me and ask what they should do. I simply repeated that they could do whatever they wanted. Even when the bell rang those who remained were not sure what to do. The concept of being given the permission to have complete liberty threw them for a loop.
The next time we met for class I asked the students to respond to and process the experiment. Some admitted that they were confused. They thought I was trying to trap them. Those who left admitted that they strayed no further than the hallway just outside our classroom door. One student said she was annoyed because she had a point that she wanted to make and once I set everyone "free", she couldn't have the floor. No one wanted to listen. Then there were a few "aha" sounds. Several mentioned that complete liberty creates chaos and nothing gets accomplished. This was what I hoped they would learn from the exercise. But, there was more. One student responded that she never left the room and remained in her seat because she "wanted to learn something." When she finished her thought I asked, "Wasn't learning taking place?"
Students often expect that there are fixed parameters for what constitutes a learning situation. As teachers, we must challenge those parameters. Learning has many faces. Creating situations that provide unusual avenues for learning help prepare students for the unexpected that they will meet down the road.