“If it’s not illegal or immoral, why not give it a try?”

“If it’s not illegal or immoral, why not give it a try?” Michael Niehoff contends that this question is one of the keys to creating a culture in which students learn to take risks in order to become respected experts at something.

A lack of appropriate classroom culture is the biggest barrier to successful project-based learning, Niehoff maintains. In such a classroom environment, teachers serve as facilitators of learning while students take possession of their learning and lead the process. “We need to create a practice of always asking our students what they think and what they would prefer if given the option,” he writes.

Grades and test scores have conditioned students to look at failure with disappointment. But Niehoff sees failure as a natural part of the learning process that leads ultimately to success.

At a quick reading, Niehoff’s question might sound like it is trying to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Upon reflection, however, he is strengthening the boundaries. Anything that is immoral is off the table; those boundaries provide a broad scope for student curiosity, creativity, and exploration. And Niehoff’s intuition that culture is often overlooked in schools is right on.

James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia explores something called habitus, and how culture shapes us through daily experiences. In The Death of Character, he writes: “At the most basic level of experience, habitus operates as a system of dispositions, tendencies, and inclinations that organizes our actions and defines our way of being. Socialized as children into this habitus, we live with an intuitive feeling about the nature of the world around us. Culture, in this way, becomes so deeply embedded into our subjective consciousness that the ways of the world seem ‘natural’ to us.” And that’s what Niehoff is after: he wants it to feel totally natural to students to take risks and accept responsibility for learning.

In this pursuit, Niehoff provides clear boundaries for students’ exploration—”not illegal or immoral,” so that what could sound like inappropriate license is actually well-defined restraint.

Cultivating school culture isn’t limited to the practices that push students toward responsible learning; it extends to everyone in a school culture. EL Schools, for example, seek to live out the motto “We are crew, not passengers.” As a learning community, they’re working to become respected experts at the craft of project-based learning.