My 14 year old, setting off on to his first day of High School.

[cross-posted from Connected Principals, 8/10/12)

As spinning class began yesterday I was chatting with a friend; we both have kids at the same school (St. Gregory), and we were chatting about it being the first day of school.   I mentioned to him that my son, now a 9th grader, was bicycle commuting to school– and that I love the delight he takes in managing his own commute:  “It suffuses him with a sense of self-reliance, of self-actualization.  It is great.”  My friend responded that he wished his own kids could get themselves to school, and expressed appreciation for the value of that spirit; he said “if could bottle that kind of self-reliance, I’d give it to my kids daily.”

Seeing him ride was also stimulated my own nostalgia– I biked to school daily in elementary school, and then again in high school, and then again for nearly a decade of teaching high school in Berkeley, California.   My strongest memory is the shift I experienced, not riding (because of a 15 mile commute) in middle school, and then resuming the practice in 10th grade.

I remember vividly arriving at school each morning in such a different frame of mind from having gotten myself there: I was an actor in my own life, an agent of my own accomplishment, and I carried that through each school day.  I remember the very snowy days when my bike and the bike of my favorite Spanish teacher were the only two on the bike rack; I remember the days when the girl upon whom I had a crush would ride by in her mom’s car, and I would frantically try to keep up with her car and show her my strength.

We know that student mindset is essential to their success.  In Teaching and Assessing 21st century skills, Marzano and Heflebower argue that among the critical 21st century skills is “self-efficacy,” about which they write:

Probably the centerpiece of understanding and controlling oneself is developing self-efficacy.  At its core, self-efficacy is the disposition that an individual has control over his or her life.  Self-efficacy plays a major role in performance.… “the average weighted correlation between self-efficacy and work-related performance was (G) r= .38, which transforms into an impressive 28% gain in task performance.”

Riding and walking to and from school develop and advance, I believe deeply, exactly the kind of self-efficacy which we most want for our students: “control over his or her life.”

Similarly, in the new book from my friends Ken Kay and Val Greenhill, The Leader’s Guide to 21st century education, they discuss the key skills to be considered as critical and essential in addition to the 4 C’s” (Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity), and they put “Self-Direction” at the top of the list.

Some would argue we are facing a national crisis in self-direction.  They might be right….. Everywhere we go we hear that many of today’s young people lack self-direction… they either want to be told what to do next or they simply can’t or won’t try to figure things out on their own.  In the 21st century, that’s a huge liability…

Most schools are top-down environments where the most successful students learn to follow directions exactly, to never draw outside the lines.  There is little co-creation and collaboration and almost no self-direction encouraged in their coursework.

Getting yourself to and from school requires a kind of independence and self-direction which our students critically need, and I have to wonder about the correlation in the perceived decline since the 70’s in student self-direction and the decline in students getting themselves to school.

Yet, as I am sure most readers are aware, few kids walk or ride to school these days; the rate has been plummeting over the past several decades.   The Freakonomics blog reports that

In 1969, the National Household Travel Survey found that roughly 41% of school-age children/teens got to school by “active travel” (i.e. walking and biking, though mostly walking, which then and now is more than 10 times more prevalent than biking).

In 2001 the walk/bike share was down to roughly 13%, a pretty spectacular drop. For elementary school children the change was even more stark. Today, even students who live within one mile of school have a less than 50% chance of walking; about 86% of similarly situated students walked in 1969.

It is simply not the case that, as a general rule, it is too dangerous to bike to school.  Indeed, our fears of such harm to our students’ health runs counter to the reality, as these stats support (Follow the link to find the supporting research links for each bullet.)  (Ironically, many high schools which don’t support student bicycling welcome student automobile driving to school, despite the statistics that that is far, far more dangerous for kids).

  • The risk of fatality while cycling is just once every 32 million kilometers (20 million miles), or over 800 times around the world.
  • Cyclists on average live two years longer than non-cyclists and take 15% fewer days off work through illness.
  • The health benefits of cycling outweigh the safety risks by a factor of 20 to one.
  • Adolescents who bicycle are 48% less likely to be overweight as adults
  • Fourth grade boys who bike or walk to school have lower BMIs and body fat than non-active commuters. Kids who actively commute to school are also more likely to remain at a healthy weight.

Richard Louv, the wonderful author of the wonder book Last Child in the Woods, is cited to this same effect in the Bicycling Magazine article, Why Johnny Can’t Ride.

Besides enumerating the creative benefits of unstructured outdoor play—climbing trees, catching frogs, building forts—Louv cites studies showing the therapeutic effects of “green” surroundings on kids diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The upshot of such involvement can be a marked improvement not only on basic tasks and tests, but also in an overall sense of self-worth. “As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically,” Louv writes. “Nature—the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful—offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot.”

One of my very first actions in my previous headship/principal-ship was to install bicycle racks on campus, at both the middle and high schools after discovering to my horror the school had none.  But, after that, I am afraid I did little, far too little to promote the activity.

Stunningly, some communities are taking the opposite course, banning bike riding to school, and one public school, which later apologized, actually punished a group of students for doing so.

[Admittedly, inane liability laws potentially holding schools responsible for student harm as they conduct themselves to school can sometimes be an obstacle, and school/district attorneys may need to be consulted on this issue as schools seek to advocate the practice, which is tragic.]

Advocating bicyle ridership and walking to school is a starting place, but it is hardly enough.    We should do more.   As educational leaders, we should look to model this in every way we can, riding or walking ourselves, and then showcasing in newsletters, assemblies, parent meetings, and elsewhere the other fine role models– teachers, staff, and students who are walking or riding.

We should organize not just one walk/bike to school day a year, but a week or a month of such activities.   We should use our influence in town or city politics to promote sidewalks and bike lanes to school.

Safe Routes to Schools is a national campaign to make walking and biking more feasible for students, and might offer some school-leaders good resources if they choose to work in this direction.

What more can we do to make it easier and more likely for our students to walk and cycle? I’d love to see the suggestions of readers, using the comment box.

  • Did you set a good goal for yourself?
  • Would you set a different goal the next time?
  • Did you work efficiently?
  • How should you work more efficiently the next time?
  • Is there anything else you could do to improve your performance?

Just as importantly, what can and should we do for those students for whom it is impossible to walk or ride to to inculcate in our students this sense of self-reliance?  How can we help them start their day having them act in ways that strengthen their sense of self-efficacy?  Can we think about having students start their day with service, with clubs, with peer tutoring, with projects for which they have ownership and autonomy?

I know these are all things we often push off to the end of the school-day, wanting, (with some good reason) to maximize those first few hours of the school day when the brain’s priming for learning new things is at its height, research I’ve read supports.    But there may still be a place for 10-20 minutes of activity which supports our students’ sense of self reliance.

In discussing the importance of self-direction, Kay and Greenhill recommend two tactics,which we could consider for the start of the day instead of or in addition to self-commuting.

  1. Self direction worksheets, [in which] each student is asked to describe a personal goal for the assignment.  After completing each assignment, each student is asked a series of questions about his or her performance:
    • Did you set a good goal for yourself?
    • Would you set a different goal the next time?
    • Did you work efficiently?
    • How should you work more efficiently the next time?
    • Is there anything else you could do to improve your performance?
  2. Other school districts have focused on project-based learning, in part to accentuate more self-direction skills.   Because students are working actively in the context of a real-world project, they have more opportunities to make decisions and lead their own learning paths.

In his legendary essay on Self-Reliance which helped open up a revolution in American thought in the early 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson write “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”

Our students have this power, but so often we don’t provide them enough opportunities to help them know that they have it until they’ve tried it.   Within our curriculum, there is much we can do to do better to help them to this recognition.    Each and every morning, many of our students can experience this sense of the power they have within by getting themselves to school by their own power, and we ought to take leadership to support this as best we can.