Sunday, December 26, 2010

When passion drives instruction no child is left behind

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Today’s students are told if they listen to their elders, do well in school, score high on the tests and graduate high school and college, ideally on time, then they will be rewarded with a bright future. Problem is, it’s not true. A college degree is no longer the magic ticket to success, but no one’s told our students or their parents for whom that may have been true. While, today’s educational system does a nice job of keeping everything in order in ways that are easily measured, it leaves out the most important piece of the equation, helping students answer the question, “What am I going to do when I grow up?”

I was a prime example of this. I was a great student. I did well on tests. I graduated in the top of my class. Everyone was happy. I helped testing companies profit with easily quantifiable data. Politicians, teachers, administrators and my parents were proud, each feeling responsible in part for my success. While their smiles lingered, I was left with something very different. After I had rushed through school to get my magic ticket, at age 19 I found myself with a high GPA and a degree in hand but scratching my head wondering, “Who Am I? What do I stand for? What am I passionate about? What am I good at? What do I want to do with my life?” I realized that during my entire school career while everyone was patting themselves on the back for producing the perfect student who did well on tests and had a formidable GPA in classes she could care less about, they forgot about the person who was left with a diploma in hand and no idea about what to do next. School prepared me to be good at school but it did not prepare me for life.

I’m far from alone. I recently came across the following blogs and “About Me” pages of some smart high school students being celebrated by their teacher.

Amy’s About Me
Carlie’s About Me
Jessica’s About Me
Maria’s About Me

When you read them you will notice these students are driven, motivated to succeed, and strong writers, but clearly there has not been much attention placed on helping these students identify and pursue their passions, talents, and interests. In each bio you can see, the students were all sold the same bill of goods. Do well in school, go to college and the rest will take care of itself...BUT IT DOESN’T!

Here’s an excerpt from one of the bios that exemplifies the sentiment these student’s feel:

To me, life is like a stone path.
My plan for step one is to graduate high school.
Step two is to go on to college.
Step three though is a complete mystery to me.
I still don’t know what I want my profession to be when I’m older. If I work hard and apply myself, I know that I can easily get past steps one and two. Hopefully during those first few steps, I’ll figure out step three and continue on through the journey of life.

Sure, they may end up in some job that enables them to get by or even do very well (but not necessarily match their undiscovered passions), but why are our students spending 16 years of their lives in these places called school that only prepare students to do well at school rather than discover and explore what they want to do with their lives.

School is supposed to be a place where we get exposed to many things so when we’re done we’ll be rounded and have an idea of what to do next but let’s face it, the reality is school is a one-size-fits all prescription for attaining learning objectives set out for us by politicians or education committees that are by-and-large disconnected from what drives our students. At a recent conference with more than 1500 educators in the audience, the keynote speaker asked, say one word to describe your high school experience. In unison, the audience responded as though rehearsed - BORING! Is this the best we can do for our students? Teaching them to be good at spending 16 years being taught that learning is boring and doing well at it is the key to success? In the end school is a place where we are exposed to many things most of them boring and of other’s choosing. I personally, did not have a class or subject that interested me much in school and I did most of my learning outside the classroom. It is rare that any teacher or administrator knows or bothers to care what the talents, passions, or interests of their students are. This is not their fault either. It’s just that knowing that is not how they, their administrators, or politicians are measured. By the time students have done all those things they are measured by, like me, they’re left with a degree and likely a pile of debt, and, for many, the love of learning is sucked right out of em. After that they go on to look for jobs, working in careers that don’t even have the chance to match with the passions no one helped students bother to discover all those years.

Amy’s , Carlie’s , Jessica’s, and Maria’s “About Me” pages need to be a wake up call to us all. Each student is driven. They are each passionate. Each is motivated, but like most high school students today, not a single one of them knows how to direct their passion and motivation. Our schools are to blame when they don’t help students do as Principal Barbara Slatin shares, “Find their light bulbs.”

What would happen if we helped these student find their light bulbs. In her “About Me” page, Jessica says this.

College is the biggest goal for me, it always has been. My parents went to college and pretty expect me to go as well. I know if I just do as I am told and do the right things maybe my experience can be a fun challenge. So what happens after college? The big question, I believe the most asked question to all kids & teens, what do you want to be when you grow up? Well that one is no answer for me. No lie, I really don’t know what I want to be and what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Jessica is right. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is likely the most asked question of students. It’s also one that school spends little time focusing on. The good news is, there’s hope. A growing movement for innovative educators is something called passion based (or passion driven) learning. It’s the topic of a whole series of passion-driven blog posts organized by the passionate Angel Maiers who recently co-authored the book The Passion-Driven Classroom. I recently wrote about a school that Prepares Students for Success by Helping Them Discover and Develop Their Passions where I share a vision of what this type of school looks like. In it one thing is clear. When instruction is driven not just by data but by the passions of the students behind the data there is no child left behind scratching their head wondering what they’re going to do with their lives. They know that success is much more than a number and a test score, and these students do indeed know not only what they want to be when they grow up, they know what they want to be today.


  1. What a great post! As a middle school teacher, it was striking to me what a difference passion made. I tried to find as many ways to engage students in discussions that would tap into their passions (in middle school this was often analyzing the way people interact). As a social studies teacher I found that some historical fiction could be an excellent vehicle to connect the students and their passions to the standards, but some historical fiction would just leave their eyes glazed over.

    I'm starting to collect ratings of historical fiction by teachers, focused on their effectiveness in the classroom.

    If anyone has found historical fiction books that really can engage the passions of their students, I'd love for you to go to the site and add your thoughts.


  2. @Ann Braden, Thank you and I agree about historical fiction. I looked at your blog and I have a suggestion. Consider creating a wiki page with a Google form and the responses embedded below like on this page (, then use your blog to publish results and attribute them to reviewers. This gives you a nice way to collect feedback and publish it. Once you have the wiki page you could Tweet out in general and to librarians on #TLchat. If you're interested and need help doing this, let me know.

  3. Great suggestion! Thanks so much.

    I will try it out and be in touch!

  4. Wonderful post! I am a former classroom educator (English, Theatre, and Creative Writing) and one of the reasons I left the classroom was because so many students had been conditioned to accept the lack of passion in education. All of my students craved worksheets, outlines, and overheads; they were desperate to be fed in bite-sized spoonfuls of knowledge that were incompatible with my content. I knew going in that my personal aim was not to create the next award-winning author or performer, but simply ignite the need to succeed through exploration and experimentation--what I believe to be the true pillars of education.

    No Child Left Behind created an educational vacuum; even now the nation is still reeling from the falsehood that simply having knowledge is enough to be successful. I know people in their late 20's/early 30's who were taught the formula for success (i.e. jump through the hoops) and have gone back to the drawing board to figure out what they can do now that they are "set on survive"--surviving and not thriving.

    I wish the best for everyone in the classroom now--teachers and students--and hope we can overcome the defunct definition of education formulated in a time when people planned to live and die within five miles of their birth place. Now, we can dream...we can hope...we can create our own opportunities.
    Thanks again.

  5. Your advice was excellent. It's amazing what can be done when you know what resources are available. I ended up just linking the google form directly to the blog, though, because the page that appeared after submitting the form on the wiki was odd and it was awkward to get back to the blog.
    Thank you so much for your help!

  6. Thanks for showing me this article via Twitter! I feel exactly like some of these students sometimes, completely caught up in high school, and it's great knowing that there are teachers out there willing to change the system!