Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sailing into a headwind

You would be hard-pressed to find an educator who hasn't heard Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk – Do Schools Kill Creativity? I don’t exactly disagree with him.  He’s funny.  He’s optimistic. I quibble.  I’m sometimes uneasy about a focus on “personalized, passion-based" education; I worry that it sends a message that the purpose of an education is merely to please oneself (or to be pleased). I have argued that students should not follow their passions.

But I think adults should.  The purpose of a general education first and then (if we’re lucky) years at university or college or in apprenticeships is to build a deep foundation of skills and knowledge so that when we find what we’re good at, what makes our hearts sing, we can use our gifts to contribute to our world.

People who are drawn to teaching are a particularly passionate group with extraordinary gifts.  I was recently at a birthday celebration; two teachers I hadn't seen for a while were in attendance as well.  In between general conversation and birthday wishes and platters of food and the cake, we “talked shop” of course.  I heard about how one had started using a new video game design program to engage his students in learning complex concepts, how the other was leveraging student cell phones for good by using free apps in PE for self-assessment and to demonstrate and celebrate learning.  As they were explaining the ways they were connecting with their students, trying new strategies to engage them in deeper learning, working with their staff to develop a system for more effective collaboration, I felt both hope and despair for the future of education.  In his new Ted Talk, Sir Ken Robinson captures why.  And, in this, I couldn't agree with him more. He says,
There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you're not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage....
There is wonderful work happening in this country. But I have to say it's happening in spite of the dominant culture of education, not because of it. It's like people are sailing into a headwind all the time. And the reason I think is this: that many of the current policies are based on mechanistic conceptions of education. It's like education is an industrial process that can be improved just by having better data, and somewhere in, I think, the back of the mind of some policy makers is this idea that if we fine-tune it well enough, if we just get it right, it will all hum along perfectly into the future. It won't, and it never did.
The trouble is that education doesn't go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working. You have to put it back to the people.  
I keep thinking about the passionate educators I meet every day and imagine what would happen if instead of sailing into a headwind, they had the wind at their back – and beneath their wings.


  1. Hi Shelley,

    Justin Mark here. Thanks for your thoughtful post. I'm glad I'm not the only one who took issue with Sir Ken's famous Ted talk. I recently watched another TEDx talk along the same lines, where the theme was for students to pursue their passions and construct/hack their own education.
    I think if I had pursud my passion as a young man, I might still be a ski bum at Whistler, and may have missed out on the opportunity to experience a liberal education. Ironically I was recently hired on with an international mountain biking company, more because of my organizational abilities, than my background as a professional mountain bike racer. I'm glad I found your blog. I've been keeping a blog at
    Cheers Justin

  2. Thanks for the Ted link. I continually wonder about the kids who don’t have the resources in their family and in their community, like Logan obviously does, to build a strong foundation of learning in a rich environment that nurtures curiosity and awakens a sense of the possibilities in life. I’m pretty sure I wouldn't have been like Logan, even if I had been able to follow my passions. I probably would have been more like the kids that I teach now who shrug and say – whatever. Is this for marks? Do we have to do this? What’s the least I can do? I worry that we will simply increase the inequity in schools.
    And thank you very much for your blog link! I completely concur with your post on the Challenges of Sharing -