Every time I discover inspired learners in a school both the vibrancy of their projects and interest in their work reflect congruence with their educators’ value for passion-driven learning. No two spaces are quite the same and the learners’ work doesn’t follow formula.
For a couple of weeks, I’ve been reflecting upon the inversely proportional relationship between passion for learning and standardization in schools. It’s pretty simple to observe as passion increases standardization decreases and vice versa. We live in a time in which outcome metrics, fidelity to replication, and scalability of “evidence-based programs” are supposed to lead to growth in achievement as measured with precision by batteries of “objective” tests. This approach defines the education game of the day in almost every public school in this country – but not everywhere.
Despite standardization pressures, creativity and passion still grow and thrive in some learning spaces. Some of these creative educators, one-offs in their schools, live in an underground, often virtual, network where they draw upon each other to sustain each other’s vital signs as teachers. But, what a loss to our profession when these creative educators must live as independent contractors in their schools, never fully realizing the power of learning when an entire staff of educators is on a passion-driven mission.
Others are fortunate members of communities where principals support and facilitate the work of teachers and learners as creators, designers, builders, developers, and inventors. Here, teachers become master artists at work in schools that are more like studios than factories. Their learners engage in learning how to learn through deep, engaging, interesting work rather than the drudgery of one too many worksheets or multiple-choice tests. Such models are few in number but they do exist in both poor and affluent communities. And, that tells me we all have the potential to realize rather than deny our dreams for contemporary learning spaces where every child can find their interest and passion niche as a learner.
The work matters.
Educators in some learning spaces are choosing to transition toward less standardization. They reflect creative work in progress. I’ve observed a school transform from mostly blank walls to one that’s full of life, light, and color. The change reminds me of a day spent watching a painter at work along the Seine. She began with a perfect, white canvas that was altered with daubs of colour into a rich landscape teeming with life. She stayed with this project for hours, refining each stroke of the brush to catch the light, the shadow, a child kicking a ball, lovers reclined on the river’s bank. I marveled at the passion and commitment it took to sustain such attention to her work, despite distractions all around her.
Recently, I walked a once-perfectly tidy school that’s in transition. I noticed signs of change in children’s drawings and writing on glass windows in the library a study in mirror writing. Another day, I returned to find children sprawled on a classroom floor working away on a project to redesign their room – a study in concentration. In another school, the librarian painted a still life with plants, benches, and tables onto the once-blank foyer outside her library. A few weeks later, the still life was landscaped with children, 2nd and 4th graders, reading together under the tables, on benches, and gathered together on the floor a study in multi-age learning.
Teachers in a third school “walk” their classes together discussing the dual importance of a safe and comfortable space as prerequisite to challenging learners to engage in rigorous, creative, and critical thinking/doing work. To shift toward multi-dimensional learning work, educators have to work hard to effect changes in practice. It demands a concomitant shift from the dominant use of the frontal teaching wall to systemic use of multi-dimensional spaces inside and out of the classroom. Design changes. Teaching changes. Work changes.
Collaborative experiences matter
The distance between the painter at work on the banks of the Seine and educators at work adding color and life to their world isn’t so far really. Artists seek out each other routinely in formal and informal ways to share their work, “steal” ideas from each other, reflect on changes in technique, ask questions, and push the boundaries of their art. Creative teachers connect for many of the same reasons.
When teachers create, adopt, and adapt their work, they function similarly to artists. They share and learn from each other. Like artists, they fuel themselves with their own passion and, in doing so, create a contagion of creativity (borrowed from @irasocol) that fuels learning passion among the young people they serve. They’re not cookie-cutter teachers and they look for every opportunity to design away from cookie cutter learning work. It’s routine for their children to ask questions, pursue interests, wonder and search, make meaning, create original responses, and amplify knowledge into deep understanding and growth as a learner. Together, educators and young people alike dream learning that’s writ large through passion, not writ small through standardization.
If I could gift every school with the opportunity to dream big, I would start with restoration of passion. From recent conversations with teachers collectively engaged in design thinking, I’ve found one common theme emerging. Educators need support of leaders who’re not afraid when teachers take necessary risks in pursuit of learning as they change the spaces, change the learning, and change the tools. Each step of the way, they diverge along different pathways just as artists also do.
In giving up the safety of mass standardization, they simultaneously sustain an in-common vision that young people can accomplish learning beyond our wildest dreams when they’re inspired, passionate, and interested in the work they do.
It works for educators. It works for those they serve.
Images: Albemarle County Public Schools