Towards Passion-Based Conversations

"The trouble with traditional education was not that educators took upon themselves the responsibility of providing an environment. The trouble was that they did not consider the other factor in creating an experience; namely, the powers and purposes of those taught." - John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938.

"Can a Student Get Up and Leave?"

In September 2006, I found myself, along with a group of inspiring educators on Waiheke Island, just north of Auckland, New Zealand. One morning, after a breakfast on a sun-drenched patio of the Hekerua Lodge, we started discussing what is now often referred to as School 2.0. We talked about the use of cell phones and video games. We talked about giving every student the freedom to learn with any tool or technology that he or she is most comfortable with.

I played the devil's advocate and argued that we cannot have classrooms filled with individuals who learn in any way they please. What about students who need structure?, I asked. What about those with ADHD? How can such an environment be conducive to learning? Is it responsible to give nine-year-olds, for example, the freedom to play video games? Isn't it my responsibility as a teacher to engage learners in learning? If we're at school, then those video games or cellphones are likely to be disruptive, aren't they? A classroom is a community, I argued, we need rules.

Sean, Leigh, and Alex argued that in our existing classrooms, teachers often present themselves as authoritarian guides and experts, often limiting the use of tools, such as games or cellphones, that have the potential to help our students learn. Today's classrooms, in other words, are too restrictive and the role of the teacher is based on control, regardless of how passionate and engaging that teacher is.

It was at precisely that moment that Stephen asked,

"In your classroom, can a student get up and leave?"

Of course, he knew the answer. I did too. We all did.

The recent discussion about School 2.0 reminded me of Stephen's question. The point here is that in a traditional classroom, the student cannot leave, at least not without facing pretty grim consequences. Whenever I think of School 2.0, I think of what it would feel like to know that every one of my students, regardless of their age, had the freedom to get up and leave. No consequences.

"A Positive and Constructive Development of Purposes"

I enjoy reading the School 2.0 manifestos. They offer a glimpse into a world where teachers are free to be passionate and engaging, where students really want to learn, and where the restrictive policies of our current world do not exist. Initially, I also wanted to add my thoughts to the School 2.0 Wiki. I decided not to because manifestos alone are not going to help me transform my professional practice so that it is better suited to help today's young learners. I have a lot of respect for all the educators who posted their thoughts, but I also know that this approach is not going to work for me.

I prefer to avoid slogans. They are often mere reactionary measures aimed against the status quo. Overtime, they tend to lose substance. I'm afraid the slogans of School 2.0 will only reinforce yet another "ism" or be perceived as yet another panacea for our contemporary educational woes. Many educators will become convinced of its supposed innate value, but most will be unable to explain how to effectively use this new "2.0" approach in the classroom. Instead, we will continue to hear and read simplistic slogans that trivialize the complexity and challenge of teaching in our new electronically reconfigured environment. Remember what happens to Old Major's beautiful utopian ideals that he explains with such passion and conviction at the beginning of Orwell's Animal Farm? Yes, they become reduced to "Four legs good, two legs bad" - a slogan repeated mindlessly by the dim-witted sheep on the farm. It reminds me of a time not long ago when, walking down a hallway at an educational conference, I overheard one attendee instruct her colleague: "Well, you really need a wiki for your class!" Is this what our complex and challenging times are being reduced to? A wiki for every classroom?

John Dewey reminds us in his preface to Experience and Education that:

any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an 'ism becomes so involved in reaction against other 'isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.


the problems are not even recognized, to say nothing of being solved, when it is assumed that it suffices to reject the ideas and practices of the old education and then go to the opposite extreme (Dewey, 1998).

I'm not really interested in stating how my classroom today should be different from the classroom where I was taught twenty-five years ago. I liked that classroom. I liked many of my teachers. They were strict and told me to ask for permission every time I wanted to leave my seat, even if it was only to sharpen my pencil. At the same time, they taught me many valuable and important skills that I used later on to pursue my goals in life. They did not have wikis, or podcasts, or blogs and yet they still managed to help me get to where I wanted to be. The teachers I liked, respected, and learned from possessed one important skill: they knew how to talk to me as an individual.

So, I am not interested in defining myself in contrast to School 1.0. What I'm really interested in is what I am going to do tomorrow, in class. What are the needs that I'm facing - my own and those of my students. Here and now. What are the problems? Finally, what are the possibilities? It's nice to talk about passion, participation, openness, and inquiry, for example, but what if you're told to teach Macbeth to a group of thirty sixteen-year-olds? What do all these slogans mean then, in practice? What, in other words, am I going to do to make myself relevant in the lives of my students? How can I assist them in learning more and getting closer to where they want to go? We need some tangible ideas and modes of practice based on a solid understanding of how and why our students want to access learning. So, let's not proceed by "reaction against what has been current in education" and adopt instead "a positive and constructive development of purposes, methods, and subject-matter on the foundation of a theory of experience and its educational potentialities" (Dewey, 1998). "To Make Learning Available"

In order to adopt Stephen's proposed approach, which is "to make learning available, in whatever form is desired and appropriate, to assist students as they do what they choose to do," we need to start thinking about ourselves, our presence in our schools and our classrooms. What if our students had the freedom to get up and leave? Would openness, participation, and inquiry keep them in our classrooms? Would a wiki or a podcast? Only if it was their own wiki or their own podcast.

That's why, I believe that education today needs a renewed approach to professional development and a closer look at how we can address "the powers and purposes" of our students. Twenty-five years ago, my teachers knew how to help me succeed. Based on what the world was like back then, they had developed their own practice. Based on what the world is like now, I need to develop my own. I'm not going to fantasize about schools without classrooms, schedules, or carefully compartmentalized subjects. I would love to see that in my lifetime, but I'm choosing to be realistic. Chances are, those things will remain firmly entrenched in our societies for a very long time. What I need now is an understanding of what I need to do tomorrow to ensure that my students can access learning in whatever form and whatever way they find most relevant.

"Passion-Based Conversations"

When I wrote about passion-based learning, I wanted to show that teachers need to redefine themselves as individuals and not automatons that focus on outcomes and expectations. I am passionate about human rights. I spend a lot of my own time reading about human rights and human rights abuses around the world. What I do in my classroom, how I do it, and who I am as a teacher is based to a large extent on my passion for social justice.

So what?

Well, if I have a student in my class who is passionate about Medieval Europe, for example, he will not be too happy in my classroom. My ability to sustain a conversation with him about that topic would be rather limited. But what's stopping me from helping him connect with a teacher and a classroom in Leeds where the topics he cares about are studied and where the teacher is just as passionate about Medieval Europe as I am about human rights? What's stopping that teacher in Leeds from telling some of her students "Get in touch with this teacher in Ontario. You can have a great conversation about Darfur"? What's stopping us? Most teachers would say: assessment and evaluation, state-defined curriculum expectations, reporting, etc.. But let's keep in mind that just because some of our students are building their own networks by communicating with experts from around the world does not mean that in our classrooms we cannot assist them in becoming stronger writers, or help them improve their reading comprehension or research skills. We can still have meaningful conversations about their work. These students can even use their own networks and their conversations with content experts located elsewhere to immeasurably enrich their own classrooms.

We need to start offering what James Shimabukuro calls "flexible schedules and virtual learning opportunities that defy time and space constraints." These opportunities "will be defined by function, purpose, and membership rather than temporal, physical, or geographical boundaries." They will allow us to become advisers "skilled in working with students and motivating them to discover the learning styles and goals that are best suited to their interests." In other words, we need to give students the freedom to access learning. Then, we need to listen and assist.

So, what do I do tomorrow, in my classroom, to assist my students? I think we all need to learn how to have conversations with people who want to learn. How do we effectively assist students in learning and not thrust that learning upon them? I admit that this may sound simplistic to those of us who have been using web 2.0 technologies in our classrooms for some time, but I think we still need to address the fact that many of us are really not engaged in conversations with our students. Many of us are proud of the fact that we create blogging communities, use wikis, or help students connect with their peers from around the world. We are proud that our students seem engaged by these environments. Let's not forget, however, that quite often the students participate because participate they must - they are at school, after all, in somebody's class.

We need to learn how to sustain conversations that are initiated by the students themselves, not conversations that emerge from the official Ministry documents or our own interests and beliefs. I think that passion-based learning will help, but I also know that there is much more that I can do. It seems to me that this new approach will require that we revisit Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. Perhaps we could refine the notion of "instructional conversation" (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991) where the teacher is involved in "assisted performance." This approach is not perfect but I think it gives us a good place to start: "To truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach" (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991).