Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Living with Rigorous Passion

Four years ago I was at a national conference about college level teaching.  The focus was sharing "effective, new approaches" to learning.  I was attending a session in which a professor was demonstrating how she had integrated video segments into her students' learning modules, in an effort to engage more diverse learners and increase engagement.  Today, that doesn't sound like such an earth breaking idea and that's not why I remember the session so vividly.  It's what happened next that sticks with me.  An audience member, seated a few seats down from me, was holding her hand up high, clearly fighting back her desire to say something.  The presenter paused and called upon her.  The audience member spoke, almost angrily, "Where is the rigor in that?!"

What followed was an awkward exchange between the presenter and the clearly annoyed professor who had asked the question.  The participant went on to demand, "We need to be requiring rigorous experiences for our college level students."  I remember sitting there, watching this exchange, thinking to myself, "What the hell is this really about?" 

After four years of chewing on that experience, it's a little more clear to me.  In the United States, we are confused about the essential underpinnings of of education. I've learned through my experiences as a student in K12, college and graduate school but more so through watching my two boys proceed through public elementary school.

Early on, we teach our children to sit, to write, to take multiple choice tests, to read books not for enjoyment and imagination but to score high on the multiple choice test that follows.  Oh, and by the way, earn enough points on those tests to be recognized amidst your peers or publicly crucified in front of your friends as one of those who couldn't make it into the 100 point club.  It's heart wrenching. 

These activities slowly teach our children that what matters to them -- what they love to do, what makes them happy -- is not an important part of an education.  We teach our children that to be successful in life, we must experience misery.  Now don't get me wrong -- misery is different from hard work.  And I would bet many people who has or who has had kids understands what I mean by this.   Kids will work endlessly to defeat a level in a video game, including going online to tap into communities and collaborate with gamers to understand how to advance.  They'll wake up at 2am to go online to harvest their potato crop in an effort to feed their crew of zombies and invade the local farmers.  They'll spend hours remixing videos with alternative audio tracks to express an opinion about something they feel strongly about.  But we continue to teach them that these things don't matter -- they're just superfluous, meaningless activities that will get you nowhere in life.  Now if we have a child who locks herself in her room for hours at a time to read novel after novel, that's a different story -- right?  We have biases against learning digital media that are silently destroying our childrens' passion.  And these biases are preventing us from seeing the potential to use digital media in public schools -- not to harvest zombie crops but to teach core competencies.

When I was young, I was fortunate to have parents who taught me to do what I loved.  When I got to college, I struggled in my large lectures classes.  I got great grades and ended up graduating Cum Laude.  But I didn't truly learn much in most of my classes that I was required to take.  I see now that grades in most college classes really do not equate to learning.  They are more aligned with seat time and how effectively you can memorize facts.   

You may argue that I got such good grades because I was an Art major and then received a graduate degree in Art History -- geez, I mean, where's the rigor in that, right? Well, my studies in art and art history taught me to see the world differently.  I learned how to value ideas that change the course of humanity, ideas that get shunned and disregarded as irrelevant by the mainstream until they slowly take hold and begin their slow disruption. 

My experiences as a student in art and art history also taught me how I learn best.  As a student, I was drawn to studying a visual discipline because I could understand it.  I remember feeling lost, confused, and stupid in my lecture classes that never integrated visual imagery.  Again, I did fine in those classes but only after spending countless hours agonizing on my own, with my books, taking laborious notes and figuring things out on my own.  I see now that it was the "rigor" that turned me off to other disciplines.  I worked hard in my art classes, learning how to draw, how to comprehend color and spatial relationships, how to create photographs of my surroundings in black and white and color, how to manipulate imagery in digital form, and how to understand the ways that images in my daily life are constructed to manipulate me.  It made me feel alive.  It made me feel talented.  It encouraged me to find my voice.  It made me feel good about myself. It made me want to live with rigorous passion.

If you can relate, you may enjoy checking out Sir Ken Robinson's new book, "Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative." 
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