“Take Chances, Make Mistakes, and Get Messy!”
Ms. Frizzle and the future of education
photo by Clyde Robinson

As I sifted through my options on Netflix recently, one show came up that filled my heart with nostalgia: The Magic School Bus. In this 90s PBS classic, kids go on impossible field trips to places like outer space and the large intestine using a magical, transforming bus. Suddenly, in my fully immersed alternative education brain, I had an epiphany. Ms. Frizzle, the kooky teacher who drives the bus, exhibits some key aspects of what being a facilitator of learning looks like. When imagining the future of education, one must imagine a new role for the educator. This can be challenging to envision, and I propose Ms. Frizzle can help us see the picture more clearly. Her character exemplifies three main attributes of ideal educators in the future.

She is imperfect and models how to handle difficult situations rationally

Is Ms. Frizzle perfect? No! As Janet, Arnold’s sassy cousin who’s visiting the school, brags in the first episode, “My teacher never makes mistakes.” At first, Janet seems to feel her school teacher is “better” than Ms. Frizzle because Janet never sees her own teacher struggle. However, as Janet soon realizes, Ms. Frizzle is a valuable educator specifically because she makes mistakes. Through these mistakes, she models how to handle them rationally. Instead of wallowing in imperfection or panic, Ms. Frizzle jumps into action and confidently pursues possible solutions and trusts the kids to do the same. As the show progresses, her modeling empowers her students to feel less panic when they end up making mistakes themselves.

In one episode, involving the exploration of a human stomach, Ms. Frizzle says “We might never make it” when her students start to panic, indicating her own confidence in all of their abilities. Her calm and playful manner in stressful moments models for students how to stay level-headed when facing difficult situations.

She believes students can solve problems and conflicts themselves, without adult intervention

When she takes them out into the world, she doesn’t police or instruct them — she allows them to authentically explore and discover for themselves. And when the students run into trouble, she doesn’t immediately come to their aid. Instead, she allows them to work together without interference. Every once in a while, she may drop a hint or provide a tool, but she never intervenes or takes over when things get hard. During these field trips, many of the kids share what they already know or have researched about the topic, and Ms. Frizzle always values the information they bring to the adventure. She will occasionally chime in with some facts of her own, but doesn’t expect all kids to drop their conversations and explorations just because she is talking. She treats them with honor and knows she is not the bearer of all knowledge, showing that all learning doesn’t have to come from adult-driven lectures or instruction.

Students from her class often disagree on strategies when problem solving, and sometimes these disagreements turn into heated arguments. Throughout these conflicts, Ms. Frizzle maintains her own confidence in them, assured that they will work it out on their own (which they do). Her reassuring commentary builds on students’ confidence and allows them to discover and try new things without fear.

She listens to students’ interests and provides tools they need for each adventure

With each field trip, Ms. Frizzle curates experiences based on her observations of the kids’ interests and curiosities. She considers no place beyond the bounds of children’s exploration. Once they arrive to their field trip location, Ms. Frizzle allows them to freely explore without micromanagement, enabling them to discover things naturally and independently. She usually stays nearby, keeping an ear attuned for commentary and interests the children articulate amidst the adventure. More importantly, she uses what she hears to improvise and add to the adventure if a curiosity is expressed, allowing deeper insight into the topics being explored.

In addition, for each adventure, Ms. Frizzle equips her students with the needed tools for when they face obstacles. These tools include things such as protective eyewear and spacesuits, helping students stay safe while in risky situations. Some of the tools she provides also facilitate a greater level of experience within the adventure, allowing the kids to float in outer space by providing suits, for example. Without her, these students would not have the rich experiences that are facilitated by her mindful ear.

In a discussion with other students while observing animals, Phoebe exclaims, “How would you like to be a lizard chased by a hungry roadrunner?!” to which Ms. Frizzle responds, “Ooh, a situation worth exploration, Phoebe,” at which point she transforms the bus into a lizard so students can truly experience Phoebe’s question.

In Conclusion

For us 90s kids who are now starting to have children of our own, we may be thinking about the future of education. While watching The Magic School Bus as kids, we were able to follow Ms. Frizzle’s class as they discovered new things on each amazing field trip, almost as if we were her students ourselves. Many of us hold a special place in our heart for The Magic School Bus and Ms. Frizzle plays a huge role in our love for the show. She is one of the few fictional adult characters who believed in trusting kids and giving kids power over their own learning.

Ms. Frizzle gives us a great example of what the future of education and an educator’s role could look like: Someone who takes kids out into the real world to learn through exploring, isn’t afraid to try new things, and models how to make mistakes and overcome them. Someone who trusts in the abilities of young people to face challenging and seemingly dangerous situations while providing the tools to do so safely. As the world continues to discuss the future of education and education reform, we should take a lesson or two from Ms. Frizzle and create space where kids can “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”