Alan Levine wrote a post a couple of weeks ago that’s been stuck in my brain ever since, primarily because it asks what I think might be the seminal “next” question for education:
What is going to motivate the large swath of a society to become educated or to learn something in a self-directed fashion? Itâ€™s one thing to be facing a need that I need to to know first handâ€“ how to fix a bike dÃ©railleur, how to stop a leaking toilet, how to bake a lemon meringue pie how to add a widget to a web pageâ€“ these are all places DIY shines, when I know that I donâ€™t know something and want to fill that gap. It is clear when I don’t know something I want to know. Lots of people do this. But what is going to drive people to learn what they donâ€™t think they need to learn? What they donâ€™t know is worth learning? In a DIY world with people tooling up for a better job, are they going to DIY their way into poetry? French literature? Is the limits of education the things we need to know how to perform/get a job? That a bothersome underlying under toe in DIY U- that the purpose of education is to end up in a job. That feelsâ€¦. lifeless.
The question grew out of his read of DIY U, Anna Kamenetz’s newish book which brought me to some similar wonderings back in April. Back then, looking at it from a parenting perspective, I wrote
Is it any wonder they canâ€™t â€œtake charge of their own educationâ€ when that self-directed love of learning on their own was driven out of them by second grade, when no one has ever allowed them to or taught them how do that?
But Alan’s question raises the stakes a bit, I think. Through my very K-12 centric lens, I’ve always looked at this as a challenge for our education system, whereas Alan suggests, it’s really about us all. At a moment where, if we have access, we can know and learn so much about whatever it is that we might be interested in, what will it take for people in general to actually take advantage of this “Cognitive Surplus” as Clay Shirky calls it and move away from the television set and into the DIY Learning world online?
I still think that a lot of this shift will rest in the “passion-based learning” opportunities that John Seely Brown writes so compellingly about. But as Alan suggests, there is a big difference between being passionate about getting the stupid toilet fixed and being passionate to learn, and more importantly create new learning, around all of those great things that you may not even know you could be passionate about. Just because we now have this cognitive surplus doesn’t mean we’re going to take advantage of it.
So after a couple weeks of returning to it, I’m not sure I know what the answer to the question is, (do you?) at least for the adults in the world. For the kids, and for schools however, I think it’s pretty clear. Our most total, laser-like focus has to be on learning, learning that is “lifelong and lifewide,” and making sure we do everything we can to expose our kids to as many different subjects and experiences as we can early on to help them identify what their passions might be. As a parent right now, I would gladly give up a lot of the “knowing” that my kids are doing, a lot of the content that’s being crammed in their heads, in exchange for time spent on what learning can be at a time when they have 2 billion potential teachers at their fingertips. Do that, and they’ll find the content they need when they need it, but they’ll also then have a much better chance of carrying that seed of self-direction with them throughout their lives.
That’s a huge shift in the role of schools, no doubt, and it ain’t going to come easy since “learning” isn’t near as easy to assess as “knowing.” But looking at the world as it is, not as it was, how can we not begin to make that shift?
David H. Wilkins says
This is exactly the sentiment we felt when we created Learning Earning. Some type of motivation is required to “spark” the learning. Most of us learn more by doing than by listening, and many kids at least need to perceive a reward for activities that are a little outside of the norm.
We think that teachers need the tools to individually motivate students. In these trying economic times, there’s just not a lot of money flowing to try new programs.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment. While I think there are times when extrinsic motivations are worth pursuing, my biggest hope is that my own kids will be motivated to learn because they love to learn. Wondering if you’ve read Dan Pink’s new book “Drive”?
Eric Hoefler says
These are good questions that seem to expand the old tensions that surround curriculum design (i.e., “what do students need to know/to be exposed to/to know how to do?”). Perhaps they widen the concern a bit into something like: “what do we want to make sure students know/are be exposed to/know how to do” vs. “what areas can we leave open to student choice.”
These questions also address the tension in the overlap between knowledge and skills. As an example: we want students to know how to write effectively and persuasively, but do we care about the content of that writing? Can they write persuasively about the best way to understand this poem / this historical event OR the significance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer OR the best approach for dealing with an older car that is having a specific type of engine trouble … and have all of those “count” equally?
Finally, I think these questions also seem to bring “when” into the equation. In 2nd grade, should they have more freedom to explore than they should in 11th grade (or vice versa)? Does skill matter more at some times, content more at others? And of course: which skills, and which content?
I don’t have any good answers, but I see the possibilities that technology provides as enlarging the questions, but not necessarily providing new ones. If we situate these questions historically (or culturally), does that help us move closer to an answer?
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment, Eric. I wonder if we can’t do more of this throughout schooling, early and late. And I do think the “which skills and which content” question is huge. As a parent, I think I would argue for a lot less that isn’t self-directed interest. In that sense, our roles as teachers need to be all about helping kids identify what it is they need to know and how to make sure the content they do find is relevant, accurate and helpful.
Andrew Forgrave says
Will, I wonder if the crux of the tension lies in the fact that traditional schooling has, at it’s core, the focus on “educating” workers? Quotes on educating, because while schooling is perhaps a step up from training-only, the emphasis on socializing and managing students for participation in a hierarchical society requires a significant subjugation of their personal interests, natural inquiry, and self-directedness in favor of the externally-defined curriculum. Hence, the “educating” in question is perhaps less pure than many educators would like.
The dependence upon “the teacher” within schooling can be so significant (remember, that hierarchy needs to be reinforced), that students are behaviourally trained, year-after-year, to respond to the teachers’ question, at the expense of reinforcing and developing their own natural curiosity. Granted, one would like to hope that educators are always looking to support the unique individual that each learner represents, but staying too far from the systemic expectations runs the risk of creating challenges for the system itself. Support for learners and educators alike is valuable to have when working to support the individual, rather than “the curriculum.” Some schools and institutions might be working in that direction, but likely a lot of public schools are intentionally kept in check, yes?
Tom Krawczewicz says
You bring up questions I have been wrestling with for a while. Anna’s book has been on my wish list since hearing the interview Steve Hargadon did with her recently so my questions may be answered in those pages.
How do students know what to explore further without school giving them an introduction? Eric addresses this concern and question in his reply very well. Are we actually doing them a disservice by letting them go on their own educational experience early? I liken it to a country identifying a “talent” at an early age and taking them from their parents to train them. Do they miss out on a well-rounded education and opportunity?
On the other hand, does the problem begin in the way we have set up our education system, as Andrew argues? It becomes the chicken and the egg argument for me – Do many (most?) students spend much of their time when they are not in school (i.e. summer vacation) doing anything except “educational” pursuits because we have removed any motivation to learn on their own during the school year? Are we assuming there is an inherent motivation to learn educational topics that does not exist? Maybe it’s just that we haven’t created the educational process that appeals to the motivation of the learning AND the content of the educational system.
Will Richardson says
That is school’s role, no question, to give them a wide berth for learning, exposing our younger kids to all sorts of experiences in art and science and literature and life in general. But we have to let them self-direct a lot of that exploration. We don’ nurture that at all, in fact I think we do make kids reliant on us to make those learning decisions for them. It’s frustrating, because that is the culture of teaching; more about teaching than learning.
Will, I commented on your blog entry on DIY learning on my own blog (http://thelearningcoach.blogspot.com/2010/07/one-and-many-in-learning.html). I would appreciate more dialog with you on this area of motivation in learning. I think where I am coming from is both constructivist and collectivist, but I would like some additional feedback from you on the ideas I have about a learning community.
Also, I very much appreciated your Open Mic session at PLP last Thursday. I plan to be there as often as I can. Hopefully, many others will join in as well.
Elaine Wooton says
I very much like your expression “passion-based learning”. The current educational system absolutely kills passion in many of our children. They deserve so much more. At our learning co-op/school, children pursue their own interests – we believe that all pursuits have value. It’s the adults’ issue if they don’t understand what that value is.
The best example is gaming. I started playing MMORPGs with the kids (after having been annoyed by gaming for a couple of years) and now I totally understand the value of the games. I learned to delegate, value the abilities of others, and share responsibility by playing an online game – skills I DID NOT HAVE at age 45. Gaming is the future of education. Learning to function in complex environments, with long-term goals, where you are more successful (and sometime only successful) if you are collaborative is it. Sitting alone with a PC with a pair of headphones on your head (like most school computer labs) is NOT IT.
Withholding technology or doling it out as reward for other successes is IDIOCY. For kids today, their future success is absolutely dependent on their comfort level/ability to fully utilize technology. To have that, they must have access to today’s tech today.
Thanks for the post!
Virginia Petitt says
Isn’t this the reason for a well-rounded “liberal arts” education? In our national move towards corporate-esque accountability, aka creating better worker bees, we have taken away time for teachers to nurture in their students a love for learning.
As a nation and a society we need to stop worshiping the almighty dollar and focus on the appreciation and support of our children, our communities, our Earth, and culture in general. As the saying goes, “It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”
Julie Carle says
Sorry Will (not Alan), a great point on the importance of passion based learning. I think may of the technologies today can invoke this type of engagement and passion. Here is an example of two adult learners returning to Higher Education discussing some of the frustrations with learning, assessment, technology and life in a UK Educational Network http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/4103
this is just a great article for me, I have been thinking these thoughts as a classroom teacher for the last 4 years. Only four as I began my quest to perfect my classroom at that time. The job has always been to instill wonder in them about something, a lot of our work is still to give engaging lessons to make them want to take it further.
Karen Dawn says
The Montessori method of education fosters DIY learning. Students are encouraged and allowed to pursue areas of personal interest with the assistance of the teacher. That is one of the hallmarks of a true Montessori environment.
singapore blogger says
In my opinion, I think the problem with Learning here is the advances of education and global knowledge.
You can DIY a 5*7 = 35 or a 1+4 = 5 but how do you DIY a [2(ab-3)(3x+40)]-[59(x-3)]=0?. What we put into education at this age is the summary of the knowledge on the subject since the beginning of human history. You can’t take 5 apples, put it into the equation and hope to get anything out of it. We are stating facts and making students remember it, not teaching them how it came about because it is not efficient to go through the history on the subject.
Lisa Parisi says
I’m going to just add a caveat to this conversation. My concern with passion based learning is that children will not have the exposure to new ideas that they need to discover more passions. My daughter lived and breathed SpongeBob when she was in 2nd grade. Had her teacher allowed her to study cartooning, creating, and drawing SpongeBob, she would have been thrilled. But she never would have learned how passionate she is about earth science or astronomy. She never would have read and loved Shakespeare. She wouldn’t have learned how to tell time or count money or write in cursive or read. A teacher’s job is to expand his/her students’ horizons. The world is awfully small for a child, even a high school child. Letting them work only within their passion keeps it small.
I think there is a place for passion based learning. It just can’t be the end of the line.
Tom Krawczewicz says
You make a great point. Balance, as in many areas, is the key. We owe it to our children and students to open their eyes to many things and let them find their bliss. If we have academic goals to achieve, it might make sense to allow students to follow their current passion while accomplishing other goals such as writing, collaboration, media creation, etc. In a time when technology makes it possible for students to learn so much from so many, it just does not make sense to limit their focus too early.
Julie Johnson says
This was a very interesting post and timely for me: my main professional/personal interest as a teacher right now is the question of motivation…in particular, motivating those ‘struggling students’
(I am a Special Education Resource Teacher, I work primarily with struggling students who do not respond well to ‘the typical school day’. I work with students as young as Gr. 2 (8 yrs old) who I see all ready tuning out and giving up on the school system.)
Some of the ideas I’ve been drawn to in my researches this summer include: using popular culture, multimedia, technology, and the arts (drama, music, art, etc) as well as technology to engage interest. It’s the idea of using material that appeals to interests, strengths, etc. The idea of learning as play. It’s a way to engage and ‘sneak in’ all that ‘higher/academic learning’.
The other thing I’ve come across which you allude to here is this whole issue of academic vs. applied learning. I’ve struggling students I work with who are not academically inclined…but are much more responsive to applied/skill/purposeful learning tasks. In some of my readings I’ve come across the idea of merging of the two…try to get at the academic thru applied strategies. Such as effective writing skills through purposeful writing tasks, thru tech, for instance, such as student blogging or classroom discussion forums.
Thx for a great post!
Ellen Hrebeniuk says
But what is going to drive people to learn what they donâ€™t think they need to learn?
You never know what people will get interested in. In a suburb even less fashionable than mine, in a very modest house, lives an expert on Eremophilas, surrounded by his own private herbarium of the genus. I don’t know what got him started, but there he is.
I think social networking will do things in ways they haven’t done before. A friend mentioning an idea or passion will lead others to discover it. Or not — I don’t find anything alluring in one Facebook friend’s plan to drink 100 shots in 100 minutes!