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 â€” working in jobs that probably were not our first choice in life to pursue â€” 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 â€” or have been told they have to do.
Before you dismiss Nair as naÃ¯ve — 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 â€” 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 â€” 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 â€” 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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How typical is the student whose passion for science is thwarted by overbearing parents or teachers who demand fund management aspirations? More likely the passion is indeed playing a guitar or drawing.
As to societal valuation of passionate singers, actors, and athletes, the overwhelming majority of these creative artists flip burgers in order to (barely) sustain themselves. A ridiculously small percentage reach the pinnacle of their game and reap the considerable rewards that ensue. Those rewards reflect the gains of mass marketing — alas, a pedestrian business arena — more than societal appreciation for artistry.
Most of what we really like to do is not marketable, ergo we do what we must in order to sustain ourselves. We are in a competitive marketplace individually and as a country, and there is a price to be paid for confusing hobbies with careers. But we can certainly agree that one should have a passion for their career(s) of choice.
Nair once presented a talk where he asked a medical student he knew what was her passion. She said it was organic gardening. So, he asked her, why she was in medicine? She said it was because she was “expected to go into medicine.” Society expected her to “be successful” which she interpreted as making lots of money.
He told the audience he would rather have a happy daughter that makes barely enough to get by than an unhappy brain surgeon that makes hundreds of thousands a year.
What would you rather be operated on? A neurosurgeon with a passion for their profession, or one that is there because someone expected them to be there?
I bet you immediately thought that Brain Surgeon was more valuable to society than an organic gardener.
How many kids “follow in their parents footsteps?” Is that because they truly love what they do, or that they were expected to do what they are doing?
It is not any one single thing that kills the creative and passionate spirit of our kids. It is a combination of things, starting perhaps with unimaginative curriculum, and schools that more closely resemble prisons than places where learning and exploration is celebrated.
Why is the best part of the day, for most workers, the END of the day?
Why is the best part of school, for most students, not the part where they are actually learning? it is recess, lunch or the last bell of the day.
Ken Robinson’s now famous TED Talk is an excellent primer on the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” made the business case for changing from Left to Right brain thinkers. It is not just a theoretical education exercise. Pink says our economy will depend on those people that can problem solve, not simply carry out orders.
I think society values people in any field that are creative, over those that are not.
If you were to make a list of the famous people in respective fields, I would suspect that the vast majority of those that you come up with are considered “creative” or “Right brain thinkers.”
At ISTE today, some people Tweeted that a speaker said that turning students into data points and numbers is just as much a form of child abuse as ignoring them.
I tend to agree with that.
Our daughter, who studied at Brandeis University and graduated cum laude, asked if we would be disappointed if she became a teacher. With both of her parents in education, we of course told her no, that if is was what she wanted to do, we supported her. She is currently a summer camp asst. director and is very happy. She graduated with a lot of college debt and it will take some time to pay it off but she is happy and making a difference in the lives of children.
We all need to find our place in the world. You need to do what you enjoy and share the love with others. I wake up each morning excited that I get to go to work. I love what I do and the people with whom I work. Everyone should feel that way. Students too!
So how do schools go about doing that in these times of high stakes testing and data-driven decision making?
My dad used to tell me do what you love and you’ll love what you do. I tried to pass that on to my own children and I try to instill that into every student that comes into the elementary library where I work as a school librarian. I see so many teachers heading for retirement excited about getting to do what they truly love and I feel sad that they do not love teaching the children! Most have been working for over 20 years. I came to education late but I have been a teacher my entire life. I was the mom that was the summer camp and scout leader and the Sunday School Teacher. I waited until my youngest child went away to college before I pursued my master’s degree to become a school librarian. My first degree and careen was in journalism, which didn’t pay enough to keep two children in daycare, so I became a stay at home mom, now I am doing what I love and hopefully encouraging children in my school to do the same.
Now, will you say you chose journalism in the first place because you feel you will enjoy being a journalist as your dad use to encourage you or journalism is someone’s else’s idea originally?