Friday, July 15, 2011

Why Students Should Not Follow Their Passion

There is a lot of talk, lately, about allowing students to "follow their passion" and "personalizing" learning for them.  Students are disengaged, it's said, because they aren't allowed to pursue what matters to them, to follow a dream, to learn what's "relevant" to them and their future.   Why should students read Shakespeare, they ask.  It's boring, "old school," irrelevant.  What if, instead, as BC Superintendent of Achievement Rod Allen argues, "things started getting packaged in terms of kids’ needs, passions?”  What if instead of "traditional learning" which involves "the ability to accept facts as provided, to learn how to compute without always understanding the subject matter or its applicability – taking notes quickly and accurately; retrieving/transcribing information previously acquired," where "mental and emotional concerns are parked for large periods of the day; students sit still for much of their time in school," we moved to schools that enable "student-initiated, self-directed, interdisciplinary learning with the teacher as facilitator."

Let's set aside an argument for why Shakespeare (and other traditional content) might be important for all children.  Let's set aside another argument against linking traditional content to "traditional learning."  (But briefly, Shakespeare does not need to be taught through a series of lectures and "Round Robin" reading.)  Instead, let's just consider whether this idea of "personalized learning" would engage students.  I asked several groups of tenth graders.  I explained that the plan is to have more choice, to design their own personalized path in high school, to work with mentors, to self-select seminars.
Are they on crack, they asked.  I admit that I was a little taken aback by their incredulity.  They explained:  we wouldn't do anything.  We'd just goof off. 

They have a point.  And it isn't merely because they've been spoon-fed information throughout school, that they haven't been taught the skills of self-awareness or self-directed learning.  It's that they haven't had enough life experience to even know what their passions are.   It might be skateboarding or "going to the mall and hanging out with friends" now (two answers I commonly get from teens when I ask what really matters to them), but they haven't yet read widely, travelled broadly, or had a range of experiences.  This is most true for the students who need a sound education system most: the one's whose life experiences to date show them a circumscribed world and limited options. 

Trust me.  I know.  I was in a high school led by a principal who wanted to revolutionize school.  I could do what I wanted.  I could attend classes or not.  I could hand in work or not.  I spent five years hanging out with friends downtown.  I had no goal to go to university.  Of course, I sometimes imagined in a childish way - like becoming a fireman or playing in the NHL - that I'd become a lawyer, a writer, a traveller.  But I had no idea what was necessary.  If I thought about my future at all, I thought I'd get married and have children.  In the remote logging community I grew up in, I didn't know any women who'd done anything else.   

But even setting aside my deep concern that "personalized, passion-based" education would become a tool to further limit the options of those whose options are most limited - it's possible that with forethought and a deep network of mentorship, this will not be the case - a grave danger still remains.  The message of personalization and passion is that the purpose of an education is to please oneself (or to be pleased).  In his address to Harvard graduates, Chris Anderson has different advice: 

Don't pursue your passion directly. At least not yet. Instead... pursue the things that will empower you. Pursue knowledge. Be relentlessly curious. Listen, learn....Pursue discipline. It's an old-fashioned word, but it's never been more important. Today's world is full of an impossible number of distractions. The world-changers are those who find a way of ignoring most of them....And above all: Pursue generosity. Not just because it will add meaning to your life -- though it will do that -- but because your future is going to be built on great ideas and in the future you are entering, great ideas HAVE to be given away. They do. The world is more interconnected than ever....Knowledge, discipline, generosity. If you pursue those with all the determination you possess, one day before too long, without your even knowing it, the chance to realize your most spectacular dreams will come gently tap you on the shoulder and whisper... "Let's go!".  And you'll be ready.  And that is how you're going to help shape a better future for all of us.

An education is what will allow our children to pursue the passion that will make a difference.  We need to think deeply about ensuring we put in their way the things that will empower them to pursue it. 


  1. Learning is fun, and I believe it would feel like "ggoofing off" to the kids compared to what they are likely doing now. The key to personalized learning, for me, is not personalizing the subject content per say, but more like personalizing the tools to engage with the content and the timing of delivery.

  2. I agree that schools should not just sit back and let students do whatever they wish. However, I also think schools are doing a poor job of "selling".

    Schools should be doing an awesome job of selling students on potential passions. Get students excited about some aspect of your subject. If students are not interested, engaged, and motivated to spend time learning about the topic of the moment - they have not been "sold" on it sufficiently.

    "Selling" is not accomplished via the first sentence of a lecture, nor is it accomplished by letting students do what they wish. People are sold on something via a variety of factors, including (in my opinion): Is it somehow relevant now or in the near future? Is there something constructive for me to do with it (other than sit and take notes)? Does it give me an opportunity to earn some recognition for the skills and concepts I have already mastered as well as the ones I am about to master?

    If students are manic about getting into college, and need to build their portfolio of community service activities - maybe there is a way to have them learn about the relevant topics in the process of accomplishing community service objectives.

    Most people are passionate about things they can do... less so about things they only listen to. If a student is passionate about music, they probably sing along, or dance to it, or play it. Music students can get bored if all they ever do is practice and take lessons - on the other hand, if they play with a group or give recitals, then they have an opportunity to "do" and gain recognition for their accomplishments. Do art students spend their entire time in school reading about art? No, they "do".. they paint, draw, take photographs, sculpt, etc. and their best work is put on display.

    We need to bring the "doing" and "exhibition" aspects of music and art and athletics to every other course of study. This will not reduce the academic content of a course of study - it will deepen it, increase engagement, and hopefully help students start to discover "passions"... while also "empowering them to pursue them."

  3. I love the ideas of "doing" and "exhibition" and also of personalizing the tools to engage students. But I'm not sure learning should feel like "goofing off" or that we need to "sell" learning for students. I am thinking about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work. His research into what makes people happy reveals that it's not what we traditionally think of as "fun" at all, but rather "when a person's mind or body is stretched to its limits in an effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."

  4. I agree learning should not feel like "goofing off". Ideally, all students would achieve "flow" while working on school work - and that comes from complete engagement in a challenging task. So, it seems we are in complete agreement there.

    As to the "selling" part, I think it all depends on how you define the term. Dan Meyer does a great job of "selling" his activities to his classes, but not in the way stereotypical advertisements or salespeople would. To me, "selling" means getting all students to the point where they are thinking "I want to try my hand at that" to themselves. We are not selling "learning" - we are selling the activity that we are about to ask them to engage in, the one that will result in them learning.

  5. Perhaps I'm being picky about the word "sell." As you say, it depends on how you define the terms. (If Dan Meyer is selling, thought, his mantra - "be less helpful" - might get him in trouble in the retail world!) I see a teacher's job less as selling than seeking. If a child isn't learning the important concept (by this, I mean something more like Csikszentmihalyi idea and not something that is "on the test"), then I just have to keep asking questions. Most often, don't you think, it's less about a different song or another dance and more about finding the "just-right" challenge or building the missing skills/concepts or changing the pathway or listening really hard to the child whose unique needs we can't possibly anticipate.