Breaking Some Rules

Are you a rule-follower? I am. After all, I was an Army officer’s first-born daughter, raised to curtsy and and speak when I had something “nice” to say.
Now that’s not all bad. Rule followers and nice people can get pretty far in this world, so I don’t hold this against my parents too much. But after reading a recent article in Scientific American, I realize there’s much to be said for being a rule-breaker, or at least one who isn’t afraid to follow her own path.
Andrea Kuszewski shares her two hypotheses in the article:

1) Teaching and encouraging kids to learn by rote memorization and imitation shapes their brain and behavior, making them more inclined towards linear thinking, and less prone to original, creative thinking.
2) Teaching kids to ask questions and think about problems before receiving the solution encourages more non-linear, divergent and creative thinking, to produce better innovators, problem-solvers, and problem-finders.


My own schooling was much of the first. Teachers who told me what and how to think. Schools where I was either ahead or behind because of yearly moves with my family (I attended 13 schools in 12 years!) Few opportunities to think on my own or, worse, fail and recover.

Years later, I remember the first time I really had to figure something out, and I almost didn’t make it. After staying home with my children for a few years, I decided to go back to the classroom. But first I had to renew my teaching certificate, which had expired. I signed up at our local college for two courses, one of which was BASIC programming.This was 1986, and I had never seen a computer. An English major who preferred humanities to math and science, I was taking these courses while I was teaching full time again with two small children at home. Not a pretty picture.

After three weeks of working in the college computer lab, I came home one day and said, “I quit. I don’t get it. It’s too hard.”
But something in my head said, no. Don’t.
So, I tried again, making my brain understand the code, the symbols, that needed to speak to that darn machine. And soon, I had created a short program that worked.

Yes! Such satisfaction.
The next week, I bought my first computer. I then taught myself DOS, and learned how to add hardware and software (do you remember installing the first Windows program that took about five hours and tons of disks?)

Most of my exploring happened as I said, “I wonder what will happen if I….” Sometimes in my playing around, I had to reformat the machine because I got myself in so much trouble. I figured out how to use Pagemaker and was the first teacher in my district to self-publish our school’s newspaper, and I moved online when the web was only text based, opening myself up to a world of research and global awareness. More often than not, I had no one to tell me what to do as I explored this new world. Technology became my window to becoming a self-confident, self-directed learner.

As Kuszewski said,  “students that are more actively engaged are more intrinsically motivated to learn—no bribes or artificial rewards needed, just pure enjoyment of learning.” I was “in the flow.”

Over the years, I’ve continued to find ways to break rules and take risks. I don’t find it easy, and often retreat to safer places. But I know my journey from passive to active learner has resulted in greater work and life opportunities and general all around feelings of accomplishment.

I agree with Kuszewski who wonders why, with so much evidence, we continue to subject children to the kind of schooling I had. I love how she closes:

What is supposed to be the most critical learning period for shaping children into the leaders of tomorrow has evolved over the years into a stifling of the creative instinct—wasting the age of imagination—which we then spend the rest of our lives trying to reconnect with. The time has never been more ready for systemic change than right now, and we’ve never had better tools to achieve this level of creative disobedience, to successfully prepare our children for the big challenges that lie ahead. It might be uncomfortable and take a bit of work, but our future depends on this radical change in order to survive.


My life changed when I realized I could do whatever I wanted to do, and I didn’t have to wait for instructions. Don’t we want that for all our children?