Wednesday, May 13

What Is Happening To Having A Passion For Education?

Two million Americans will earn a bachelor's degree in the coming weeks and join the work force or head to graduate school, notes Emory English professor Mark Bauerleiny in a column he penned for The New York Times. But as large as that number sounds, it's not the one that lingers with you.

It's the number that he never gives — how many connections do students make with their professors — that will haunt you. That number, he asserts, has become minuscule over the decades. 

As more and more professors act more like proctors, treating their students like peers as opposed to the pupils they are contracted to challenge, so has their role as mentors or thinkers diminished. Students think of them as customer service representatives, passing out and collecting assignments for class. Almost 43 percent of them, in fact, will receive an A grade, up from only 15 percent in the 1960s.

It's not the students who have mostly changed. It's the coursework, class size, engagement, and objectives that have changed. Student recruitment and revenue has become a driver, with an emphasis on catering to students who experienced the same sort of mentor absenteeism in high school or, perhaps, their entire educational career. The institutionalism of education almost assures it.

The prerequisite missing from students, teachers and administrators is passion. 

Different people have different explanations for what is wrong with education today. Some say it is because we are in the midst of a transition — from a localized industrial model to a global technological model. Some say it is the core curriculum, moving at the speed of a Jell-O elephant. And some say the problem is where the money goes, without considering sports as part of the equation.

This doesn't account for finger pointing either. Some blame teachers. Some blame parents. Some blame administrators. And the blame game is not just here in America. It is everywhere nowadays.

Maybe there is some truth to any or all of those expectations. Maybe there isn't. Maybe the problem can't be traced to a person or thing as much as an attitude. It seems hard to keep passion in education.

Administrators are being asked to control "bad" teachers, level the playing field to ensure standardized test success, and reduce spending while increasing profit margins (or budget surpluses of specialized administrative positions). Teachers face more and more policies and paperwork, less educational freedom in favor of rigid curriculum, and an increasingly large and distracted body of students. Students face more standardized rote memorization, flat and distracted instructors, and a bombardment of relatively bleak messages about their future (including unwieldy student loans).

All of it seems to assail the one critical element needed to succeed in eduction — a love for learning or a passion for education. Administrators won't develop it unless they are asked to free teachers from  the shackles of global standards. Teachers won't retain it unless they own part of the curriculum they teach. Students won't develop it unless they are challenged and then succeed in the face of those challenges — mastering skill sets and then being able to apply them outside the classroom.

Nothing will change until we plug the growing passion gap in eduction. 

Ask psychologists and most will agree. Not only are high achievers driven by passion, but everyone relies on it for their substantial psychological well-being. It's this thinking, in fact, that prompts most career coaches to tell others to find out what they love and then give themselves permission to succeed. It's a concept that works for many people too. Sylvia Plath is an exception.

Except, she really isn't an exception. It's increasingly impossible for someone to stumble into a passion (or even an activity that will lead them to it) no matter how hard people try. There are too many choices; many more than we even know about when someone asks us to pick a path out of high school or college. And nowadays, it's even tricker to know. As technology propels the world forward, there is a very good chance that one person's passion might not exist for another decade (or perhaps it does now but will blink out of existence in that amount of time).

Maybe the solution is stop looking for an activity or position to fuel your passion and start putting passion into everything — no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. Ergo, high achievers don't look for things that they have a passion for as much as they find a passion for whatever they do.

And if we want to infuse this thinking into education, then we need to ask administrators to allow teachers more flexibility in their method of delivery and students more opportunities to not only learn the material, but also understand it and feel challenged by it. Cookie cutter core curriculum can't do it.

After teaching for more than 15 years and volunteering as a youth sports coach from time to time, I've learned a few things about teaching. Professors have to bring a passion with them into the classroom, be prepared to adapt its delivery to best suit the audience in front of them, and then invent individualized assignments that challenge students to go beyond the course requirements.

Looking back, it's no accident that I learned this to be true either. Every teacher who inspired me (whether listed or not) was not content in teaching their classes as prescribed. They challenged me to do more and in doing so made their passion a contagion. I came away having a passion for many things, which later served me as a communicator across many industries. Nothing needs to be boring.

Sure, I understand the appeal in thinking that leveling the educational playing field is good thing. But there comes a point where leveling the playing field labels every advantage as somehow unfair and then goes on to strip teachers and professors of their passion, creativity, and classroom flexibility — which robs every student of their creativity and passion in turn. We can't afford to lose any more.

Inspirational stories aren't made from making everyone level. They are made by people who find the will to do more, despite any disadvantage, adversary, or adversity. And it always starts with passion.
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