Friday, December 10, 2010

what can a screaming doll teach a 15-year old?

For the past week my 9th grade daughter carried first a sack of flour dressed like a baby, and then a computerized baby doll with her 24 hours a day.  The experience is part of the curriculum of Teen Living, a course required in the Utah state curriculum.

The express purpose of this assignment is to make caring for the baby doll so onerous that teens do not get pregnant.  To this end,  caring for the sack of flour means the student has to wake up at 2 AM each night and carry it around the house for 15 minutes. The computer baby comes with a key that gets taped to the student's wrist.  At random times throughout the day and night the doll starts screaming.  When it does the student puts the key in a slot in the doll's back.  It immediately stops crying, but the student must hold the key there until the doll cries again (usually between 5 and 15 minutes) at which point you pull the key out and the doll quiets for another couple of hours.

The screaming doll anti-pregnancy project is remarkable for two reasons.  First, it requires an enormous accommodation on the part of the school, where all day long for months on end kids carry sacks of flour or screaming baby dolls to class.  In a school culture where a word out of turn or a t-shirt with an offensive slogan can result in suspension, the school's willingness to allow the dolls is incredible.  (The patience of parents and siblings is equally noteworthy.  We made our daughter sleep in the basement, since the noise of the doll woke the entire family each time it cried...)

But the project is also fascinating for the amount of trust it puts in experiential education to change teen behavior.  I have no idea whether there is any data on projects like these, but school superintendents and legislators must be confident enough in the doll's power to pay for the things.

One wonders why this is the case.  After all, aside from this and driver's ed, there is no other place where the school mandates that students learn by doing.  So is there something about danger (of pregnancy, or dying in an auto accident) that makes the schools trust experiential education?  Or is there something about the power of embarrassment, either by a screaming doll or a poorly driven car, that educators think will help students learn?

In a comment on a previous post, Derek Bitter wondered what risk in the classroom might look like.  Here is a real example--the risk of having attention drawn to you used to discourage risky behavior.  But it raises a further question--can risk teach what you want it to?  In my daughter's experience the answer is a qualified no.  When we talked about what she learned she mentioned that she learned patience and a bit about how tiring it can be to care for a baby.  Did she think it would keep kids from getting pregnant?  Not really, she said.

Carrying the doll went pretty well until one night at her band concert a fellow band member stole her doll.  he kept it from her, stuck it in his pants, humiliated her.  When I got to the show she was in tears.  Risk doesn't always teach the lesson we think it will.

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