Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Role of Teacher in Passion-Based Learning

I have been considering the role of teacher as we explore the idea of personalization and passion-based learning. I understand the value and necessity of passion-based learning and want to suggest that it does not exist as some absolute and certainly is not simply about a learner and his/her interest.  Instead, imagine passion-based learning as dialogue that occurs among learners, teachers, mentors, and community-based others.  Passion-based learning isn't about our interests, but rather about the ideas, curiosities, mysteries, and possibilities that are engendered in juxtaposition with one another. At the center of such engagements are the learner and the teacher.

The definition of teacher is important to name as we wade into less anchored times where the idea of teacher is being challenged as being necessary. Consider for example, Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) who offer this vision of learning:
In the new culture of learning, people learn through their interaction and participation with one another in fluid relationships that are the result of shared interests and opportunity. In this environment, the participants all stand on equal ground—no one is assigned to the traditional role of teacher or student. Instead, anyone who has particular knowledge of, or experience with, a given subject may take on the role of mentor at any time. Mentors provide a sense of structure to guide learning, which they may do by listening empathically and by reinforcing intrinsic motivation to help the student discover a voice, a calling, or a passion. Once a particular passion or interest is unleashed, constant interaction among group members, with their varying skills and talents, functions as a kind of peer amplifier, providing numerous outlets, resources, and aids to further an individual’s learning (Kindle Location 587-593).
I appreciate the bold ideas Thomas and Brown offer in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, but think their vision does not capture well the idea of teacher.  I believe that much will be lost if we abandon the role of teacher in lieu of peer to peer learning or community-based mentorship. Now to be clear, I believe both peer-based learning and community mentors are very important correlates to learning and are under used in our current realization of school.

When I think about teacher, I think of Madeline Grumet's (1995) definition. She writes: 
When we say that we are educating someone, we are introducing that person, young or old, to ways of being and acting in the world that are new to his or her experience (p. 17).
To introduce learners to ways of being and acting in a world new to the learner's experience requires the teacher to act as bricoleur: one who cobbles together materials at hand to serve new uses. The teacher as bricoleur (I've written about this here) is the master teacher as s/he is able to anticipate, occasion, deepen, and complicate learning. Teaching well isn't singularly following a learner's passion and supporting it, however worthy such art and craft might be. Teaching well also means leading the learner into ways of being and acting that are foreign to their experience and as such not yet a passion.  Teaching well means occasioning a learner's intellectual frustration and scaffolding such experiences so that learners come to know the power of ambiguity, uncertainty, loss, and joy.

I have been thinking about this for several reasons: I have been taught by such teachers, have worked alongside such teachers, have married such a teacher, and have friends who are such teachers.  I know via these relationships what it means to be in the company of teachers and would not want that denied to learners regardless of how personalized an education we might be able to offer students. There is something to be said for the unimagined, impossible to plan, and random learning that happens in the company of fine teachers.

So what does this all mean?  Teachers matter. Their brilliance, tentativeness, failures, kindness and courage matter.  I want to say, America, we would be fools to abandon such importance.

A point of illustration: Earlier today I was reading Michael Doyle's (@BHS_Doyle) latest post, Natural World. He's a teacher who teaches high school biology in NJ. He writes:
My goal is for kids to know less by June than they knew in September, a whole lot less. Good science can be as tenuous as the wisp of a shrew's breath.

Until they know this, and it's easier to grasp when entropy takes its toll over the years, as knowledge of your inevitable path creeps into cerebral shadows, I fear I am wasting their time.

Until they know this, maybe pushing them outside, a copy of Seamus Heany's Human Chain in one hand, a cheap plastic magnifying glass in the other, is enough science for a period, for a lifetime.

The path outside with poem book and magnifying glass in hand may not and likely will not be a route learners would claim via their passion.  All the better then to make that road. Know this: Alongside finding one's passion(s) as learning method, we also need to embrace the ambiguity of not knowing & walk that road too.  And yes there will and can be lots of guides.

Nonetheless, the guide I'd most want to walk alongside is a teacher.

Works Cited:
Grumet, Madeline. 1995. The curriculum: What are the basics and are we teaching them? In J.L. Kinchoe & S.R. Steinberg. Thirteen questions: Reframing education's conversation. 2nd edition (pp. 15-21). New York: Peter Lang.

Thomas, Douglas (2011). A New Culture of Learning:  Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (Kindle Locations 587-593). CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.


  1. In one of those interesting synergisms made possible by communication as fast as our thoughts, I just posted your words on my site.

    And, I, um, need permission for one of your photos.

    (I also stumbled upon a school I designed for class years ago--I even made a brochure. You are helping me get to that point. I was amazed at how consistent my change has been with the fantasy I envisioned back when I was a pup in this business.)

  2. I love Doyle's ideas and his prose: "tenuous as a wisp of a shrew's breath."

    We talked earlier about connections between science and literature. Teaching both is about complications, paradoxes, finding avenues to explore.

    Maybe that's true of every discipline. Knowing how little we know.

  3. I couldn't agree more with your vision of 'teacher' and was inspired by the clarity of that vision: "Teaching well isn't singularly following . . . the power of ambiguity, uncertainty, loss and joy." Ah. .. .

  4. "Passion-Based Learning"

    One Google search + three hours later = lots of new ideas (and a few validations).

    Thanks! Keep fighting the good fight, Mary Ann.

  5. @rflynn, yep that lined stopped me. I agree that the interconnections are of all things and why not? We are connected: every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you:)

  6. @Mardie, thanks so much for your comment. I have been Struve king with finding balance as I design an alt to HS.

  7. @Mike would love to know more aout what you discovered, determined, wondered about via that three hour search.

  8. Great post - I read A New Culture of Learning for a class this summer, and loved it! We have the potential to help a student identify and unlock their passions - It's more important than any "content" we could possibly teach. What a great time to be a "passion guide"... :)

  9. @pattigrayson Really love the phrase, passion guide. Fabulous descriptor

  10. Mary Ann, it's all wrapped in a plan slowly coming into focus right here:

  11. @Mike fascinating set up Mike. Curious to read a long as you move through the year--the challenges that arise, the paths you and students make while walking that you cant know just yet--all of this will influence the story that emerges, gets told. Look forward to dropping in virtually as you make your way.