14 February 2011

Passion-Based Learning

"we are assuming (1) that learning takes place best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests as well as "subjects" form a realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them."
- Alan Shapiro and Neil Postman 1969-1970

We spend so much time telling the kids in our schools that we are not interested in them, and somehow we think they should be interested in us.

This is not really a teacher issue, though there are teachers who do this. This is mostly a societal and government issue. People accuse me of having a 30,000 foot (10,000 meter) view of education at times, and maybe so, but its a clearer picture than any seen in US State Capitols, or in Arne Duncan's US Department of Education, or in Canberra, or Westminster, or in any of those places where they talk tests and measurement and "Core Knowledge." Unlike all the people in those places, I can see the kids' faces. I can see their boredom. I can see their disdain. I can see them adopt the role of Prisoner of War in a battle our politicians and wealthy and powerful are having with our own children.

We expect kids to learn to read by giving them meaningless exercises and meaningless stories. We expect kids to learn to write by assigning them things no sane human would ever want to write. We expect them to sit in one place when they don't want to do that. We expect them to be interested in history without ever connecting it to their lives. We ask 21st Century teens to read Ethan Fromme and A Separate Peace.

And yet, we dismiss almost everything about their world - their interests, the things they most wonder about, the things they need to know, they way they need to move. We act not just as if we are disinterested, but as if we profoundly distrust kids, and really don't like them very much.

Project-Based Learning is the "How," Passion-Based Learning is the "Why"

The essential flaw in our form of education is expressed in this statement about the purpose of Teach for America's 5-week summer training "institute," "which builds skills in delivering lessons and managing a classroom."  I quote them because they are the teacher training program most beloved by the United State Secretary of Education, and because they are willing to be very blunt about their incredibly low expectations for teaching1, but the real message from too many colleges of education isn't that far from that - "deliver" content knowledge, while "managing" the classroom - and after that, take care of the needs of children.

This turns teachers into a sad combination of parcel delivery people and boot camp sergeants. It turns kids into sullen, passive receivers. It leaves those kids without strong support for passion-based learning at home, way behind. And - it divides kids into the compliant - those who will win in education, those most like their teachers - and the non-compliant - those we really want to kick out of school.2

Project-Based Learning crosses boundaries of age, development, current capabilities, and our ridiculous divisions of content, and gives a wide range of students a chance. But Passion-Based Learning, passion-based projects, brings kids in, by exploiting the natural curiosities of humans, and by not squelching the learning styles kids have built before they come to school.

Any entry point is good

I don't care if it is racing Hot Wheels cars, playing a first-person shooter video game, building a house, wondering about weird food, or jumping on a trampoline, you have an entry point for a project, and thus a whole range of "curricular" learning.

you may want to skip the hypothesis, and stick with observation

Hot Wheels? You have physics, math, geometry, the history of transportation, automobiles and wheels, the art of industrial design, car-related music, and a rich literature on human movement. Playing video games? You have the science of the game itself, the origins of the art, the physics of the human control v what occurs in the game, a world of interesting mathematics, the history of games, the literature of conflict. Building a house? "The students spent last year learning how to calculate quantities for building supplies, building stairs, and learning about the home building process," which includes maths, sciences, communication skills, and perhaps you'll want to read Tracy Kidder's House. Jumping on a trampoline? Obviously physics and math, materials science, biology of muscles, art of acrobatics, history of entertainment, literature focusing on the circus? Who knows. Every topic of interest to a segment of your school should be your entry point for that group of students. And if you work it right, as students progress, you will be expanding their interests and accepting their expanded interests.

I hear an awful lot of math and science in this project, did the school carry that through?

As I said to a teacher one night on Twitter, "if you can't make anatomy interesting to adolescents you must be looking at the wrong bodies." And if you can't make physics interesting to kids, you're not bouncing a ball. If you can't make stories - both learning them and telling them - interesting to students, you've got the wrong stories. If you can't make history interesting to kids its because you're starting with dates and dead white guys instead of toilets, food, weapons, and animals.

On Sunday night I helped an eight-year-old with a report on Ireland. We Skyped and I shared pictures with him. He had talked first to his great grandmother, then to me, but he never asked about the size of the nation, what continent it was part of, its major exports, because, at eight - who cares? He instead asked about what games kids played, what the schools were like, what they ate. Real questions. But as we talked about those things, we talked about history, and geography, and why they didn't grow corn but did make lots of software. These things just came up. They won't "stick" in a big way in an eight-year-old's head, but they'll be there the next time the topics come up. And we got to history the way you get to history with an eight-year-old boy, through a photograph of cannons pointed at houses.

In simple terms, we don't take an assignment and "individualize" it, we take individuals and bring content knowledge to them on their terms. We don't deliver, we offer. We don't manage, we take advantage of who our kids are.

We don't talk a lot about "passion" in our schools. But I think it is time we started.

- Ira Socol

1 See http://www.teachforamerica.org/the-corps-experience/becoming-an-exceptional-teacher/http://www.teachforamerica.org/the-corps-experience/becoming-an-exceptional-teacher/ and read the silly little "real teacher clips" - we "organize" for better delivery, tell kids that they're not 'permanently dumb,' and have unwavering rules.

2 This piece by Frank Beard (TFA '08) is really worth reading, and thinking about. It touches on the fundamental problem with Teach for America even among its most thoughtful participants. The author sees the system failing the students most like himself, because in his untrained eye - and the TFA attitude - success means being like a TFA recruit:
"As a teacher, I saw firsthand the very people who were failed by my district’s leaders:
"They failed C.P., a quirky, wonderful student who was reading Plato’s Republic for fun in seventh grade
"They failed D.W., a bright, talented student who although sometimes lost his temper due to problems at home, would always apologize afterwards.
"They failed M.J., the sweetest, nicest, most prim and proper student I’ve ever met, who was forced to endure disruption day after day by one of her classmates who threatened to shoot others, was arrested for armed robbery, and made sexually harassing comments to girls
"They also failed M.W., a student who although acted as a class clown at times, was incredibly smart, motivated, and had the potential to do anything he wanted to in life."
But the author does not see that the system has dramatically failed the "15-25% [of students] that were chronically disruptive," and that he wishes were removed from the school (or in KIPP philosophy, never admitted). Education for some.


Mary Ann Reilly said...

One winter I taught a group of seniors and the text we all loved the most was Ethan Frome. Meaning isn't traded or given, but rather occasioned. So great passion can and does arise alongside literature, just as it may alongside other types of possibilities. Passion is not tied to a project and certainly not a delivery system. Passion finds breath in the very human interaction of selves. That winter I taught those seniors I so wanted them to understand that other (a trio of people caught in desperation) was worthy of our notice. I wanted this as I thought it an important life lesson--one I hope would keep them in good stead across years.

It was the relationships we had forged that carried the passion. The marks on the page are always just that, marks. But they do hold promise, every bit as much as a project. Literature has the potential of helping us to be good.

So I don't think passion is limited to projects. I think your opening lines speak the loudest truth. If we show we do not care, it would be hard to have a relationship where being vulnerable is required.

irasocol said...

Mary Ann,

There are all kinds of definitions of "projects." One of the longest running "projects" in the high school Alan Shapiro began was something called "Great Books." Students met on a weekday night in Alan's living room, but really, the books they read directed their learning all week, all semester, all year. Alan, as "teacher," brought his passion for literature to the students, and then let that passion spill in many directions.

So some students headed deep into Dickens, others into Herman Hesse others into Carlos Casteneda. These books lead them other places, but Great Books - as a project - let these ideas and passions be shared.

So, the term "project" might seem limited, but I hope in practice it is not. But yes, caring, knowing why they'd be interested, is how we begin.

- Ira Socol

Mary Ann Reilly said...

agree Ira. must be getting old. I so recall reading Hesse and Casteneda. So long ago:)

Bill Genereux said...

I really enjoyed the Oregon Trail video. I wonder what kind of grade the parent got for that project? Just kidding - sort of. It reflects the sort of strong home-support that most kids need to make sense of school.

I've gotten in trouble a time or two at home because of how I approach homework with my daughter. I try to get her to look at things from several perspectives to see if one makes more sense. Last night she was working on 3rd grade division. A light came on when I told her it was multiplication in reverse. She exclaimed, it's sort of like we do with binary number conversions! (Another home project outside of the curriculum).

On reading homework, my wife was chagrined when I suggested she read the questions first, then go back through the reading to see if she can find the answers. She's supposed to read it first, then answer the questions, I was told. I work things out backwards all of the time, was my reply. (Not to mention it was worksheet reading of the sort you described in this post.) Yeah, that's me. Putting these bad ideas into my kids' heads.

Scratchie said...

Thanks for this Ira. We are on the same page. This helped me greatly.

Anonymous said...

Ask me sometime about my General Theory of Sanctimony.

The idea that teachers know everything and should never have to share power with students is one of the examples. :-)


Lisa Cooley said...

Thank you, Ira Socol!


Heather Beverly said...

I believe you are right that the students are bored. The students work should have something do with things they have to do in the future. The teachers should help get the students interested in the class work by adding what the students are interested in.

Hans said...

Great stuff! I loved your point about passion. If the teacher is not excited about the lesson, how can the kids be? We have to create curiosity in our students--a love of learning that will stay with them their whole lives.

There is no excuse for boring teaching.


Unknown said...

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