Let me first say that I love Kathy Sierra’s blog because so much of what she writes has relevance to education and because there is such a spirit and energy to it that it just makes me motivated to, as she says, “kick ass.” The name of her blog, “Creating Passionate Users” is what education should be all about, shouldn’t it? Helping kids become engaged. Helping them find their passions. Helping them be able to create a life around whatever it is they are passionate about. Notice that it’s not about teaching them to do that. You can’t teach someone to be engaged or passionate. Sure, you can model it, and I think every teacher should share her passions with her students because I’m not sure kids see a lot in the way of healthy passion in the world these days. But there is no text or curriculum for becoming engaged.
Passion bubbles to the surface only when experiences draw them out. Lately, I’ve been looking at my own children and seeing them begin to feel passionate. For my 8 year old daughter, it’s horses. Yesterday I had to almost drag her away from scooping poop at the horse farm down the road to come home and eat dinner. After riding, everything about her smells like pony, and she refuses to change her clothes to put us out of our misery. (That may be less passion that it is obstinance.) For my 6 year old son, it’s basketball. All of a sudden, all he wants to do is spend time at the end of the driveway dribbling and shooting this old beat up basketball that looks like it’s coming unpeeled as the leather separates from its black rubber body. Seriously, he must take a couple hundred shots a day (and he makes most of them, I might add.)
But when it comes to school, they have very little passion. I’ve written about this before, but they are bored silly. It’s already become just a routine they put up with so they can see their friends. Wendy and I give them extra work at home, try to make words and numbers fun, but that almost serves to make their disenchantment with school worse. They are disengaging. And I can guarantee that as they take more and more tests that have no obvious relevance to their lives, they will become more and more disengaged.
I know a fair number of passionate learners, people who seek out opportunities to think seriously about thier lives and world around them. I wish I knew more. I don’t see many passionate learners in classrooms, however, students who are always “learning, growing or improving in some way” (as Kathy puts it) simply for the sake of knowing more instead of for getting a grade. My kids are riding and dribbling not for an assessment but to get the buzz that comes with being able to do it well (as well as for many other non-graded reasons.) That doesn’t guarantee that they will be life long learners, but it’s a start.
So the question for me becomes can schools create passionate users? Can we begin to teach the stuff we need to teach in the context of our students’ passions? And in doing so, can we instill and nurture in them a love of learning and growing? For the vast majority of our kids, school is a game, and though it may be hard to admit, most of us on this side of the desk are complicit participants. The outcomes are clearly defined, and very few of them have anything to do with fostering passionate learning. And in a world where our students can much more easily connect to people who share their passions outside of school, we risk a great deal when we fail to think seriously about how we might create passionate learning opportunities in our classrooms as well.
Chris Champion says
I can’t agree more with you Will, and this notion has been on my mind this week. I consider myself really lucky to teach at a vocational school because most of my kids are genuinely interested in what they are learning – they have that “passion” that is lacking in their other subjects. I want to share with everyone here my “aha” moment years ago in high school when I went from borderline obstinant to passionate – in English class, no less.
I failed my Freshman high school English class. I scraped by at summer school. At that time, writing was something that had to be dragged out of me. And then I took a creative writing course from a Mr. Livecchi at your fine school. He assigned periodic journal entries (3-4 x a week). For once, writing was for ME. He only noted that we had completed a free writing – no grade or criticism were given. I did not have to punctuate properly, did not have to diagram the sentences, did not have to use this week’s contrived vocabulary words. And I fell in love with writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote… you get the idea. I ran out of space in my journal and flipped it over, writing from back to front upside down.
You said it best about your kids and it applies to me. They are learning basketball and horseback skills because they are doing it for themselves. That is the challenge we face as teachers. Today’s savvy students want personal gain from everything – and saying things like “they need to get over it” and “not in my class they won’t” is ignoring the reality. I can’t even imagine how we can take the tough subjects that a student doesn’t like and make it fun and engaging. Technology is certainly a step in the direction that our students understand inherently (Marc Prensky’s “digital natives”), and maybe it can help us professionals reach kids that we wouldn’t any other way.
I still have that old dog-eared Composition book. I also got my degree in English.
Elaine Larson says
I ran smack into a situation that illustrates this issue, I think. For several years I coordinated a statewide writing and illustrating contest for children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.
From the very first year of the contest — and with several hundred entries each year — we noticed a disturbing trend. The work of the kindergartners — text and wonderful illustrations — were for the most part highly imaginative, colorful, full of fantasy and creativity. The first graders were not quite as colorful, the illustrations tended to be smaller. By the time we got to the stories submitted by second and third graders we noticed an alarming “dullness” to the stories. Illustrations were generally very small, often done in pencil, without much if any color. The stories of the 2nd and 3rd graders were quite derivative, compared to those of the younger children. Of course they had more years to “derive”, but still, they lacked imagination. Most disturbing were the entries by a whole class where they had been given a theme, or a subject, or even a title! and told to write their story about it.
With few exceptions, the older children’s stories were not as dynamic or original or fun or…engaged. There was little passion. Whereas we often found ourselves laughing out loud in glee when reading the stories from the youngest children, we were actually bored reading the stories from the older children.
This made us (staff, judges) extremely sad. It was obvious that what could have been a fun activity was definitely NOT fun or engaging for many of these students. More disturbing is the thought that perhaps this points to the fact that we deaden students to learning, to joy, to passion, to curiousity, to fantasy…with each successive year they sit in the classroom.
Obviously one cannot generalize to the whole population or to teachers/schools in general. But we saw this so often in the stories (and I’ve heard similar stories from the same contest in other parts of the country) that is indeed alarming.
You are a moment out of my classroom as of late… here’s the situation… I teach Social Studies on a Multi-Age Looping team at a middle school in Arizona (7-8th graders). Each quarter I give the students one mapping/analytical essay writing type assessment and then I let them ‘contract’ for the other major assessment. They can choose any product to evidence learning that they want. They write up the contract and then we review and both sign the agreement. I was out the day that the students wrote the contract with my student teacher and to my immense dismay I came back to find that many of them wanted to glue pictures on poster board and write five paragraph essays. This was unacceptable. I gave them a speech about what they tell me when I assign a five paragraph essay. The answer is “It’s boring”. My response to them is that we are done CHOOSING BORING FOR OURSELVES. I explained to them how sad it was that when left to their own devices they chose what they regard as easy and boring. So we rewrote contracts and had some AMAZING projects turned in as a result.
Point 2… we then started working on a project with half of our 8th graders that will be traveling down the San Juan River with a SUPERB program called Grand Canyon Youth (www.gcyouth.org). As a component of the program students need to research a topic related to the San Juan River. The requirements for the project ask the students to produce a visually appealing fact sheet, a visual of some sort and then develop an activity for the other students to perform on the river. Now mind you this was after the “Don’t Choose Boring for Yourself” pep talk. The students started working and they needed to constantly be reminded about making the project fun and engaging for the other students. One group is working on the oil fields of the San Juan River basin. As an activity they are having the students figure out what non-renewable resources were used to complete our trip. Part of the activity is a word problem to figure mileage and fuel expenditures. The student writing the word problem at his computer was really working hard. I asked him how it was going and he said, “This is the best day I have ever had at school”. My jaw literally dropped… he was writing a word problem for crying out loud… and it was the best day ever? I told him that it was my long-term goal to start a school that would operate like the river trip project all year long. His eyes got wide and he told me, “That would be soooo tight!”.
Now end run here…. I’m with you on the creating passionate users of education… the key is to get the teachers back to the passion as well. As an example, my students are working with GIS and rethinking the Israel/Palestine border issue from 1948… proposing new lines, using data to make the decisions and then writing an essay that elaborates on the choices they made and the consequences that result. Down the hall, students color flat maps, labeling countries and capitals once a week. We, as educators, need to reinvigorate, retool and wake up to the reality that kids are bored and learning very well how to be incredibly boring themselves.
Vicki Davis says
I love Kathy’s blog and am an avid reader.
I think that to create passionate learners we need more passionate teachers.
No, not the kind that is hauled off for illicit relationships with kids (that seems to be all too common these days.)
Rather, teachers passionate about what they teach and excited!
I find that my Web 2.0/RSS relationships online have given an extra spark and excitement to my computer science classes. I don’t feel like I am in isolation.
I agree that passion is a vital element in learning but even moreso in teaching.
Just as a pot will never get hotter than the eye that it sits on, rarely if ever will a class be more passionate than the teacher that fans the flame.