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." 


Matt Meyer said...

Hi Michelle,

Great post! I relate to it at many levels, especially now with my own 2 boys in grade school. I'm fortunate in that I get to work at Penn State and investigate technology use and impacts on a constant basis and then somewhat evaluate that with what my kids are doing in school. It's an odd dicotomy of K-12 education right now; on one hand, standardized testing that has no learning impact that districts are forced to implement while on the other hand figuring out how to keep up with young students' digital environment. I wonder how I will try to keep these things in balance for them? I personally don't want them stressing over those tests when they occur but they will hammered over the head by their school. I do want them to know how to pursue things that interest them and communicate their works in multiple ways, especially digitally. As for the 'rigor', that is an incredibly loaded word. In one sense, it means what you describe: passion. I think in the person's question, it was interpreted as "why shouldn't they suffer as badly as I had to in order to get the same outcome?" Give one person a sledgehammer, the other a chainsaw and ask them to cut down a tree. See who accomplishes the task faster and is ready to keep moving and who expended more "rigor".

Unknown said...

Hi Matt, thanks for stopping by. I think you conveyed precisely how I was trying to define "rigor" (by college standards) but maybe didn't do so as clearly as I'd hoped.

Okyay said...

Great topic Michelle! I'll be thinking about this post for a while. Rigor, as in rigor mortis perhaps? Teaching my students to be more creative, I am often aware of this undercurrent that if it's fun/easy/colorful, then it must not be as important and serious, as something that's hard to do.
I got really excited about Learning + Technology about a year ago, but now I see that bigger issue to me is how much everything in higher ed will change, and I have the impression that at my university, they are still trying to manage the change in small bites.
I thought technology would help me improve my classes within 'the system' (and it has), but now thinking twenty years into the future, it seems like building nice classrooms, showing up at appointed times, paying teachers a salary to be there at that time--all of that could be replaced by something much more open. Maybe people that want to learn will simply purchase learning moments from something analogous to the iTunes store?

Michelle Coder said...

Hi Michelle,

I just found your blog. I'm going to share it with teacher friends. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the educational system. As a middle school RSP, I worked with the students who suffer the most in the public school setting. They never make it to the 100 point club, never wear the A+ T-shirt at rallies or get to take Art and Band because they are strongly encouraged to take Study Skills classes in order to complete an overload of GE homework. The Special Ed department was also just given "technological crumbs". I struggled to teach with an overhead projector and an old LCD projector while the GE students were being taught in smart classrooms. Sadly, my RSP students are very bright, some gifted, and many were highly creative and artistic. However, by middle school their self-esteem was so shot and they were actually afraid to be creative. Not only were my students under-educated and mis-educated during K-12 (ie. often missing GE LA or Math instruction and rarely participating in Art and Science because of RSP/specialist pull-out sessions), but because they were labeled Special Ed they were stigmatized by staff and students alike. Their self-esteem was so fragile, I finally did come research with my class to show them there were many successful and famous Learning Disabled people. They were shocked to discover Learning Disabled students who survive the public school system with the support of family or mentors are the type of resistant individuals who become successful innovators, entrepreneurs, artists, sports heroes, etc.. If this research project gave them hope then I feel my work was not in vain.