After a month in China, I’ve come to realize that North Americans live in a bubble wrapped world.

In the ‘Western’ world we walk around oblivious to our surroundings, going about our business feeling safe and secure. I don’t mean safe in the sense of being cautious of others, since in actual fact, I have always felt safe in China (other than in the occasional taxi), and in fact Dalian feels safer than downtown Vancouver or Toronto when I’m out late at night.  I mean safe, in the West, in the sense that there are laws and bylaws and rules in place to make sure that we are ‘protected’ from unexpected harm: Guardrails and warning sign and lit-up crosswalks with pedestrian controlled lighting abound.

In the bubble wrap West we occasionally read or hear about someone who slips right next to a ‘wet floor’ sign or trips on an uneven curb and they end up blaming and suing others: “It wasn’t safe”, “It was faulty”, “The step was too high” or “The railing was too low”. Our day-to-day environment is safe, secure, sheltered… and sterile.

In China, things are different. Pedestrian walkways are a suggested crossing location and give no rights to the pedestrian. White and yellow lines on the roads are mere suggestions for where a pedestrian should stand as cars zip by at speeds up to 60km/hr, the occasional horn blast reminds you not to make any unexpected moves.

Here, doorways have immediate steps going up or down as you cross the threshold. You must walk with your eyes on the curb as a missing tile, or a sudden step may appear, unexpected by Western terms but fully expected here.

At the far end of Xinghai Square there is a structure I’ve only ever heard called ‘The Open Book’. The book opens up with concrete slabs raised to more than 6 meters on the sides, with no rails and a simple yellow line painted to suggest a caution. Nearby a beautiful walkway has a single chain fence that sits gently near the path, supported by short concrete posts- on the other side of the rail, a two+ meter drop onto rocks. Two examples of things that just wouldn’t exist in the west… there just isn’t enough bubble wrap present to permit them.

I think schools have become a bit too bubble wrapped too. We protect the kids from impending harm, bubble wrapping their learning. However I think sometimes we harm them in our attempt to keep them safe. Here are a few digital examples:
1) Instead of teaching them intelligent searching, we filter websites.
2) Instead of teaching them online safety we stop them from creating online profiles.
3) Instead of letting them connect and learn socially, we ban them from social networks where there is potential for bullying.
4) Instead of letting them seek out experts, we hand pick the guest lecturer.

What we are doing is creating a facade of security, nothing more than an illusion of bubble wrap.

1) Filters prevent teachers from knowing what a search will show students at home.
2) Students create online profiles behind teachers and (more specifically) parents backs and put personal information on the profiles since they have not had any adult advice about how to protect their identity.
3) Social websites like Facebook, unsupervised, becomes a playground where the bully tends to ‘win’.
4) Students have no idea how to ‘talk to strangers’ online, but they don’t have their parents or teachers advice when (not if, when) that happens.

Well now it is time to pop some of the bubble wrap. It’s time to remove some railings and teach kids to be careful. There is a whole world ‘out there’ to explore! Yet, I’m not saying be reckless.

My daughters have experienced freedom here like they have never had before, ‘Go play outside and be back by dinner.’ – something I got to do at their age, but my kids didn’t really get in Canada. But, I’m not letting them cross a busy street on their own yet, (the overprotective dad in me says they won’t cross a street alone in Dalian until they are in their 20’s), because they are still at a stage where, if scared they might do something a driver won’t expect, and human/car mistakes aren’t ones I want my daughters to learn the hard way. My point: we will all have different comfort zones, but if we don’t start popping some bubble wrap, we are not really protecting our kids like we think we are.

15 comments on “Bubble Wrap

  1. but now that much of the bubble wrap in the west is law or regulation how do we get rid of it? That is the question, because there is no question that I agree with you.

  2. Good question Harold, though in asking it I think we fall into the mental construct of what we ‘can’ do vs what we ‘can’t’ do… which allows ‘we can’t’ to be an acceptable answer. It may just be semantics but I think the better question to ask is ‘What can we do?’

    So, what can we do?
    • Talk to our district leaders about how ‘Filters Filter Learning’ (The POD’s are Coming see the slides leading up to Slide 57)… and about how to use Personally Owned Devices for learning in schools.
    • Teach online safety.
    • Create social learning networks with students (even if it is a private, ‘walled garden’ that only the class can participate in).
    • Connect online with other students, even if they are from the same school or district, and promote creating safe, appropriate online identities.
    • Volunteer to help write a school or district Appropriate Use Policy (AUP).

    My point is that a lot can be done to remove the bubble wrap, without having to undo paranoid driven laws and regulations. We just need to: take on a leadership role, find the teachable opportunities, and do what we can to prepare our students for the world we live in today!

  3. Excellent post and an interesting one. I actually had the same feeling last year when I was in Shanghai for the Learning 2.0 conference. It actually seemed as if people had to be responsible for themselves crossing a street or when doing almost anything. I thought it was an interesting and powerful realization of the differences between cultures. Love to read about your experiences and about what you are learning. Thanks for continuing to share.

  4. Thanks for putting this common experience in to a new context for me. I have always told newcomers to China that there is no word in Chinese for “liability”. I’m not sure that’s linguistically true, but it certainly is culturally. The personal responsibility required in the context of safety crosses over to many areas of life here.

    This week I’ve been teaching my students about the concept of independent investigation of the truth. We compare concepts like superstition, dogma and prejudice with the basic truths that are the kernels of those lies. So “7” is not a lucky number, it’s just a number. A person is not inferior because of his/her skin color, nationality, gender, etc.; all people are equal. Though generally these concepts go over in the classroom, when I hit a real hot button, like the general attitude towards Japanese here, I find that there is plenty of bubble wrapping where learning is concerned.

    I really felt the need to pop some of those bubbles, so thanks for providing the opportunity!

  5. Hi Dave,
    First of thanks for the excellent post. I just wrote a post on my blog about the way we “protect” girls from the internet. How do we remove the bubble wrap when its tied in place through fear and uncertainty?

  6. Hi Dave,

    I loved this entry having lived in some other more exotic places myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alive as I did trying to cross the major streets when I lived in Ecuador. Anyway I recently heard about a guy who solved the problem of one of the most dangerous and congested intersections in the Netherlands by removing all the signs and traffic controls (including lane markers). People began having to pay attention to one another and apparently reduced collisions remarkably. I wish I could remember where I saw it, but I can’t, regardless a great and funny entry! Oh and I totally agree with the comment before mine!

  7. Hi Dave,

    Very well said. My kids, who are now grown, grew up overseas and attended international schools from kindergarten through graduation from high school. They have a confidence and a sense of responsibility that came from living in multicultural situations in almost every region of the world. Experiences that made them make choices, some good and some not so good, and even stumble along the way. Your bubble wrap analogy is such a vivid picture of how parents can handicap their children, with all good intentions, instead of letting them grow into strong, confident adults who have tasted bad choices, or even failure, and learned from their experiences.

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