Guest blogger Tim Holt is a 25-year public school educator and has been both a science teacher and urban district administrator. Through it all, he has been an experimenter with technology, seeking ways to make learning more engaging and meaningful. He lives in Canutillo TX with his family and blogs at Intended Consequences.

by Tim Holt

Famed school architect and futurist Prakash Nair likes to say that we as a society have it all backwards.

  • We spend the majority of our working lives making money — working in jobs that probably were not our first choice in life to pursue — so that at the end of our careers we can use whatever time we have left to pursue our true life passions.
  • We train our children to do jobs that they probably would not really want to do, force them as early as late middle school (in some areas of the US) into career paths that they may or may not like (the education equivalent of an arranged marriage), and then spend billions on “reform,” trying to figure out why they don’t live up to our one-size-fits-all standardized measurement system.

What we should do instead, he opines, is spend our education dollars teaching students to find what they are passionate about, support them as they explore that passion, and encourage them to spend their lives pursuing the ideas, dreams and goals that excite them the most.

Imagine a world, he suggests, where people are doing what they want to do, instead of what they have to do — or have been told they have to do.

Before you dismiss Nair as naïve — or imagine a world filled with billions of video game players, rappers and skaters — consider how many children in elementary schools across the globe have a passion for the sciences when they come to school. They are curious about the world (“Why is the sky blue?”) and curious about how life works (“Where do babies come from?”). Ask any second grader about their favorite subject. The vast majority of them will tell you Art and Science — the hands-on classes. I doubt any will say “test taking strategies” and none will say their goal in life is to become a “Hedge Fund Manager” or that their immediate interest is to “get ready for middle school.”

Ask those same students in high school a few years later, and very few of the boys and almost none of the girls will mention Science and very few will be enrolled in the Arts. Quite a few will be worried about the Test.

Sir Ken Robinson, the expert on creativity and author of the bestseller The Element, has spent years speaking around the world about how we as a society take great pride in beating the joy of learning out of our children, so that by the time they reach high school, the vast majority of them are standardized in thinking, standardized in the way they seek answers to questions, and standardized into not being able to think creatively — the area many businesses now say they need the most of. (“We need Out-of-the-Box-thinkers.”)

Only a few children can break through the creativity-killing cycle of industrial-revolution-created, standardized-tested-to-death education. Yet, ironically, as a culture, we value highly those that are creative and pursue their passions as their vocations. One only needs to look at the salaries of professional athletes and Hollywood actors to see the evidence of that. Top-rated reality shows such as American Idol celebrate people “chasing their dreams.”

A passionate curriculum

In a recent interview published in the Washington Post Answer Sheet blog, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, educator and internationally known professional developer, spoke of the need to begin to change our education system through “passion-based” education — where teachers help student create their own learning by not simply lecturing, but by leading them to where their passions lie. The first responses to her interview were typical: “I like the idea, but it can’t be done in the current test-crazy climate we live in.”

That is a sad testament about the condition of public school education on a national level. We are not teaching our students to pursue passions, we are teaching students to pursue predetermined pathways that they may or may not value. Too often, they leave their passions at the doorway of education and career, and maybe pick them back up when they leave the building. For the most part, they have to pursue our passions on their own time, outside the official learning paradigm.

Students are doing it on the side, as best they can.  Simply look at YouTube to see how many kids are posting videos showing how to DO something like play a guitar or draw. Meanwhile, we as educators are turning a blind eye. And sometimes worse: we’re actively discouraging “messing around” in favor of “getting serious” — at younger and younger ages. It is not uncommon nowadays to see posters in Elementary schools saying something like “College Begins in Kindergarten!”

Imagine how the world would have been different if Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Pablo Picasso and all of The Beatles had left their passions at the door and chased what their teachers thought they should chase. Now look at your students and ask yourself, “How am I helping them pursue their passions?”

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Sheryl is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Powerful Learning Practice. She works with schools and districts from around the world helping them to infuse technology into their curriculums and by leading other digital conversion efforts. Sheryl also consults with governments, educational organizations and non-profits in development of their various professional learning initiatives. Sheryl is a sought-after presenter at national and international events, speaking on topics related to digital and online learning, teacher and educational leadership, online community building, and other educational issues impacting children of poverty. Sheryl served on the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Board of Directors for six years. She co-authored The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age with Lani Ritter Hall. Sheryl has four children and four grandsons, Luke, Logan, Levi and Tanner and a trio of dachshunds. You can find out more on her blog and on Twitter @snbeach.
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