With Freedom Comes Responsibility

HotNews Jan 24, 2017

Hans Monderman is a retired traffic safety engineer who re-designed roads and especially intersections in Holland to make them safer. In response to a sharp increase in traffic accidents in Friesland, a small city in the north of the country, Mr. Monderman removed all the speed signs, traffic lights, speed bumps, center lines, and even the sidewalks.

Whaaat? He REMOVED the very things conceived to make the roads safer? “It is only when the road is made more dangerous,” Monderman explains, “when drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that driving becomes safer.”

When I discovered Mr. Monderman’s work in 2005, it articulated what I instinctively felt for many years - road safety engineering is a lot like school culture.  Whaaat?

Think of it this way: road engineering can rely on lots of ordinances and laws, an abundance of signs, and police to enforce compliance. Basically it’s about rules and obedience. Conversely, the engineer can base the design on fewer ordinances and require that people respect each other, communicate and act responsibly. This approach is founded on the concept of trust and cooperation. 

With the former approach everyone, from pedestrians to drivers, must behave in a prescribed manner with an expectation that they would, as psychologist Barry Schwartz put it, do what’s required rather than do what’s right. The latter approach relies on trust with the expectation that people will look each other in the eye, have personal interactions, and communicate. 

Generally, schools inhabit a place on a spectrum between these two approaches. The culture can be based on rules and obedience or on trust and cooperation. At Peninsula, trust and cooperation form a scaffold underlying our values and are most clearly conjoined with three values in particular — Authentic Interactions, Community, and Freedom and Responsibility.

At Peninsula, children are provided with freedom and trusted with responsibility to have plenty of personal interactions with peers and adults alike. We place a premium on teaching students the value of these interactions and the importance that authentic, honest and direct communications have in those relationships. In the process, children learn from the inevitable conflicts and mistakes that come with growing up in a community. Most importantly, they learn that cooperation is challenging and messy, yet it is a powerful ally.