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New Slide: Being Responsible for Teaching the Bored

Having spent the past month reading Michael Fullan's Stratosphere and Carol Dweck's Mindset, I've got a thousand interconnected strands running through my mind about the role that motivation and passion play in genuine learning.

(click to enlarge, download and find original photo credit here)

Slide_TeachingtheBored

In Mindset, Dweck argues that students who see failure as the key to self-improvement -- instead of as devastating personal setbacks -- are the most likely to succeed.  "The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it," she writes, "even (or especially) when it's not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset" (Kindle Location 184).  

She readily admits, however, that "sticking to it" is a whole heck of a lot easier for people who are pursuing things that they are passionate about.  Nadja Salerno - Sonnenberg -- the ten year old violin prodigy that Dweck spotlights in Chapter 2 -- speaks about her commitment to "working the hardest for the things she loves the most" and "giving her all for the things she values."

And in Stratosphere, Fullan pulls together the thinking of Tony Wagner, Ken Robinson and Jonah Lehrer to argue that engaging students depends on tapping into the personal passions and interests of individual learners:

"Let's also be clear that the education revolution that Wagner, Robinson, Lehrer and others are calling for is to create a system where every student finds his or her particular purpose and passion -- what Robinson calls "the element."  We have always known that purpose and passion are at the core of star business entrepreneurs and athletes. The difference in stratosphere is that every student is enabled to find his or her element."  

(Fullan, 2012, p. 32)

But here's the hitch:  As a classroom teacher, I don't have the flexibility and freedom to give students opportunities to pursue their individual passions.  Instead, I'm charged with marching every kid through a massive curriculum covering topics that are barely even interesting to me.  Pair that curriculum with high-stakes tests designed to hold teachers accountable for student mastery of random collections of easily-testable facts and I'm even LESS likely to have the time and space to allow students the freedom to explore the concepts and topics that move them the most.

Doesn't that mean we're all completely screwed?  

If we are going to demand that students learn the huge sets of isolated facts that we jam into state and district curricula, can we really be surprised when teachers struggle to create highly engaged learning spaces that are driven by passion and interest?  More importantly, if we are convinced that learners are more likely to BE engaged when they  are wrestling with concepts that move them on a deeply personal level, can we really be surprised when our students find today's schools boring?

#justsayin

_____________________

 Related Radical Reads:

How Engaged are YOUR Students?

Digital Immigrants Unite

My Kids, a Cause and Our Classroom Blog

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

 

Original Image Credit:  239/365 No-one Really Likes Passport Photos by Andy Barrow Photography - Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on November 9, 2013

9 Comments

Deb Teitelbaum commented on November 10, 2013 at 9:24am:

It's not either/or

Bill,

I want to address this question: "If we are going to demand that students learn the huge sets of isolated facts that we jam into state and district curricula, can we really be surprised when teachers struggle to create highly engaged learning spaces that are driven by passion and interest? "

I don't see the teaching of factual data and the creating of interest as mutually exclusive.  Daniel Willingham wrote an outstanding book called Why Don't Students Like School? in which he devotes an entire chapter to this problem.  What he suggests is that the isolated facts that students need to learn are partial answers to a bigger question.  The answers themselves are not very interesting, but the big question can be.  Unfortunately, most of us are so focused on getting to the answers that we don't spend sufficient time determining and communicating the question to our students.

I was observing a teacher of middle school science as she taught a lesson on the difference between a virus and a bacterium.  The lesson was well-organized and understandable, but it lacked that "so what?" factor.  If I'm a sixth grader, why do I care if there is a difference between a bacterium and a virus?  Had the teacher framed the lesson within a larger question, e.g., Why is it so difficult to find cures for diseases like AIDS or the common cold?" the students might have a more personal investment in the lesson.  Ultimately, they should be able to answer the question using those now not-so-isolated facts about the differences between bacteria and virii.

It's not a perfect plan, and there are some students who will be bored simply because it is the job of teenagers to reject anything adults value.  Still, I think it is a cop-out for educators to say they are powerless to invest their lessons with interest and excitement simply because they have to operate within certain parameters.

Respectfully,

Deb Teitelbaum, PhD, NBCT

Bill Ivey commented on November 10, 2013 at 7:22pm:

quantity, not quality

Deb, I see your point, and absolutely there is a lot we can learn from Dan Willingham's work (I reviewed that book here for MiddleWeb, and overall, I liked it). At the same time, though, I think about a point in my life when I applied to teach history in a local charter school. One of their stated reasons for rejecting my candidacy was that, used as I was to the intellectual freedom that comes with working in an independent school and implementing a democratic classroom model, I would be absolutely miserable with their curriculum, with having to cram in the incredibly huge amount of information required by the state. As I remember, they talked about 12 three-week units, each more or less unrelated to each other except by the most tenuous of threads. In each of those units was a long list of facts the kids would have to know to pass the test. They were right. I would have been miserable, and so, too, I think, would the kids.

And yes, as Dan rightly points out, we need content in order to build skills, and of course there are ways to connect that content to the kids. But state requirements also need to leave teachers space to do that. If they do, and a teacher doesn't move beyond memorization of facts, then indeed that teacher needs to kick their game up a few levels. But if they don't, and the teacher is struggling under the weight of a constant stream of requirements and has to constantly push forward, I'm not going to blame the teacher in that case for not making it relevant to the kids. In my above example, make it 6 six-week interconnected units, each with a shorter list of facts and the freedom to connect those facts to questions my kids had anyway, and it would have been a totally different proposition.

Does that make sense?

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on November 11, 2013 at 5:10pm:

Deb wrote:

Deb wrote:

Had the teacher framed the lesson within a larger question, e.g., Why is it so difficult to find cures for diseases like AIDS or the common cold?" the students might have a more personal investment in the lesson.  Ultimately, they should be able to answer the question using those now not-so-isolated facts about the differences between bacteria and virii.

 

_______________

But here's the thing, Deb:  This lesson as you describe it WOULD be fantastic and motivating -- but it would also take at least a good week to two weeks to get through in a meaningful way.  There's simply not time in our curriculum to spend two weeks wrestling with any big question.  Heck, my pacing guide has me getting through Space -- the entire freaking universe -- in two weeks.

 

I know full well that powerful questions can lead kids to learn key facts in a more meaningful and powerful way.  The challenge isn't in finding the questions -- the challenge is in finding the time to let kids wrestle with the questions when the curriculum has more facts than you can possibly get through in the time allotted.

 

That's no cop out.  It's a fact. 

Bill

Julie Hiltz commented on November 10, 2013 at 9:54am:

To me, the answer to this

To me, the answer to this question is as diverse as the students in my classroom. Somewhere in between the engaging big question and the minutia of the required curriculum lies the real challenge- not all things are appealing to all students at all times. For students that are struggling with having their basic needs met on a daily basis, it is hard for them to engage in some of the best what-if problem-solving scenarios. They don't see the connection to how this will improve their lives in this moment and they don't likely have the time/energy to try to make that connection. For students that are working at a high level there may be no drive or curiousity to ask the next logical question- they've been successful so far with what they are doing, why make things more harder on themselves? 

Sadly, we can't always be all things to all students, but I would like to think that we meet all of our students needs at some point. Like Bill, I wish there was more flexibility in the curriculum to allow students to find their passions and explore their interests but we're not there yet. 

Matt Lemoyne commented on November 10, 2013 at 9:50pm:

English

 

Dear Mr. Ferriter,

Firstly, I'm with you on this. One of the most significant things I took away from the Willingham text that others have been mentioning here is that interest begets motivation, which begets thinking, which begets learning. But if one kid out of thirty loves any learning about motorcycles while others enjoy topics ranging from music production to cooking to Victorian English fashion, well, we're a bit out of luck on teaching according to our students' interest, aren't we?

On top of this, administrators, parents, and students expect us to make life-changingly fascinating lessons out of some pretty dry texts and principles, many of which were solidified before our grandparents were born. Weak.

But no, I don't think that these restrictions and requirements mean we're completely screwed. 

In truth, how we handle the issue of teaching to students' passions depends greatly on which subject and grade we teach. As an English teacher, I feel almost guilty that I'm lucky to be able to create questions that drive at the qualities of humanity that all people have the capacity to experience. There are infinite lenses through which we can view a text, and there are many options for partnering curriculum-mandated texts with more immediately relevant and fascinating "helper" texts. 

I can imagine that teachers of science and math have a vastly more difficult time with this, and I sympathize for those whose students (accurately) predict that they'll never calculate the area of a triangle or determine how many moles of nickel this solution contains after they graduate. Perhaps helper texts might be valuable for this, too -- anything that can, without trickery, provide an answer to the question of "why do we need to learn this?" It's not always apparent why schools and states mandate numbers of credits in various subjects. I think it's our job to lead students to potential answers to this question. 

In some cases, such difficulty in drumming up motivation can be a teachable moment provided that we understand the long-terms goals of our students as well as from what points of thinking they're coming from. Your future fashion-designer might balk at proving the congruence of angles A and B, but I might argue that his understanding of how he responds to this requirement is just as important as his success in completing the proof.

This is where Carol Dweck's argument is especially important. Growth happens when we hold ourselves up through uncertainty. There's a Japanese proverb that encapsulates this idea beautifully: "Fall down seven times, stand up eight." In this way, I hope, we can teach students to have a strong sense of personhood through math, science, English, history, etc., instead of merely having a strong sense of the academic subject we teach. 

With respect,

Matt Lemoyne

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on November 11, 2013 at 5:15pm:

Matt wrote:

Matt wrote:

In truth, how we handle the issue of teaching to students' passions depends greatly on which subject and grade we teach. As an English teacher, I feel almost guilty that I'm lucky to be able to create questions that drive at the qualities of humanity that all people have the capacity to experience.

----------------------

I think the difference, Matt, is that as an English teacher, your primary responsibilty in the eyes of those who write curricula is to teach kids a set of skills that they can apply to other settings and that my primary responsibility in the eyes of those who write curricula is to teach kids a set of facts that someone has determined are important to know.  

If we moved to a skill-based curricula for all subjects, we'd be able to let kids wrestle with their passions because skills translate across domains and passions.  If we insist on defining specific facts that every kid is supposed to memorize, we take flexibility away from teachers and create learning spaces that leave little room for exploration of personal interests and passions.

Any of this make sense?

Bill

Matt Lemoyne commented on November 11, 2013 at 9:29pm:

Dear Bill,

Dear Bill,

It absolutely makes sense, and it's a shame that many of our curricula depend so much on these facts. Given that we and our students live in a society where most factual information is awesomely easy to acquire (thanks, Google), such emphasis on factual knowledge is obsolete, I think. Today's curricula should reflect the importance of students' abilities to organize, process, respond to, and contribute to readily available factual information. If you're arguing that we should adhere to a skills-based curriculum for all subjects, then I agree with you. 

Thank you for the thoughtful response!

Matt

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Melody Wilson commented on February 7, 2017 at 6:20am:

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