White Knuckle Learning

Hanging on tight, aware where you’ll end up (if all goes well), but not really sure about the twists, turns, and loop de loops along the way, knuckles white, eyes narrowed to concentrate on the next few seconds rushing toward you, and (when things get really interesting) mouth opening in a laugh…

That’s learning.

Not every second in a classroom is filled with an activity that has students building, acting, singing, filming, or slipping into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” And that’s okay. Amusement parks aren’t all roller coasters; they spend some real estate on flowerbeds, snack bars, and colorful maps of the park.

So too education, where it is important to take time building classroom culture, feeding the students enough information and perspective to get them wanting to know more, and providing them with an understanding of what the course will help them learn. …then setting them loose to run for the roller coasters!

photo 1 (5)These opportunities for white knuckle learning look different in every classroom: students making a Charlemagne video in history class, conducting a mock trial in English, or painting with acrylics on canvas in art. Students who understand why they are learning what they are and have been inspired to want to know more, learn as they choreograph a stage battle, dissect a sheep heart, or fly (and crash) airplanes they’ve designed.

photo 4 (2)Students learn best when their engagement allows them to be so focused on the experience they are involved in that the classroom around them melts away.

Not long ago I was taking our superintendent on a walking tour of campus. We visited classrooms and saw a broad range of student activities. Then,, when we opened the door of an eighth grade science lab, we saw the roller coaster.


“They’re learning about physics and applying some principles of engineering,” the smiling teacher told us as we found her among the sea of students clamoring atop tables to hang foam track from the rafters. “It’s a little crazy,” she said, “but they really remember what they learn.”

1rollercoasterAnd oh, what they learned.

Teams of kids bent, twisted, and taped foam to meet the parameters of the roller coaster design lab. They experimented, rolled marbles down the tracks, failed, rebuilt, and failed again. No two roller coasters looked the same, but as we walked from group to group, ducking through the spiderweb of track, the students looked away from their serious work long enough to explain to these two guys in ties just what they were doing. Their eventual successes in achieving what they wanted with the roller coasters paled, in my eyes, in comparison to their ability to clearly explain what they were in the process of learning.

When I’m asked about student engagement, theirs are the first faces I see, focused, curious, and learning. Engagement is a roller coaster. Students thrive when they can can ride and design.

4 thoughts on “White Knuckle Learning

  1. Bjorn, the analogy about amusement parks especially the time not spent engaging in the thrill is fantastic. The downtime is needed to take a breath, reflect and then engage and go again. Great post!

  2. Pingback: Books, Badminton, and Beautiful Conversation | bjornpaige

  3. Pingback: #YourEdustory | bjornpaige

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