I would like to talk about passion and public education.
I’m not sure if your experience is similar to mine, but I can’t recall ever having a dispassionate conversation about schools—the way they are, the way they used to be, or the way they could be as the result of reform or transformation. And this sense of passionate response has only been heightened by the release of several documentaries on the state of public education, mainly in the United States.
But it’s not passion for quality schools that I’m talking about. It’s passion in quality schools that has been on my mind of late. It’s an idea that has been front and centre for me for a while as I have struggled with others to revitalize the experience of school through a more artistic approach to teaching and learning. It’s an idea that re-emerged for me this past weekend as I sat down to watch yet another educational documentary, this one focusing mainly on the current state of education in the U.K.
In a sense, We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For, (2009) provides a type of counter-narrative to the stories of broken, dysfunctional schools found in Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman. In We Are The People, the film’s author, Sir Ken Robinson, makes it clear that the vital question is not about how we fix our broken schools, but about how we develop a whole new approach—a whole new model—for education. After all, why try to fix something that is no longer the right tool for the job?
At the heart of We Are the People, is a call to create for our young people a place where, in addition to learning the skills and knowledge that they need to become participating citizens, they can also discover a sense of passion and a sense of purpose, not just for school, but for life—their life!
As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think back to my own schooling. You know, in retrospect, I discovered one of my life’s great passions in Grade Five; I was ten years old. It was 1968 and the education landscape in Ontario was starting to look a little bit different. That September, I was placed in the new open concept wing of the school that I had been attending since Kindergarten. I arrived on the first day to discover that desks had been replaced by work tables, wall-to-wall carpets had been installed over the tile floors and, most intriguing for me, record players had been replaced with cassette tape recorders, each with an external microphone!
To say that this new technology was a game-changer for me would be an understatement. Instead of spending the day with foolscap paper as the main medium of communication, I was given the freedom to use the cassette recorder whenever I wanted; I was permitted to use it to record my own voice and present class work and assignments. Heck, I even did my grade five speech on the invention of the cassette tape recorder. It wasn’t long before I had basically claimed the machine as my own.
Once I had been successful in convincing my parents that I needed a tape recorder that actually belonged to me, I could usually be found in my room creating my own radio programs, novelty musical montages and news broadcasts.
Throughout the rest of my schooling, I looked for opportunities to hang out in places where recording technology was being used. I joined the A.V. team at my junior high, participated in the closed-circuit coverage of a federal election in secondary school and continued to look for ways to integrate the technology into my own class work.
When it came time to apply for post-secondary institutions, my first choice was the Radio and Television program at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. My parents refused to consider this as an alternative because Ryerson was not considered a real university. So, I trundled off to the local campus of the University of Toronto every day for three years and eventually applied to the Faculty of Education.
People will often ask me why I didn’t apply to join the University radio station. My reason is always the same: I was afraid I wasn’t good enough. I realize now that, while school did a good job of trying to teach me the basics of math (!) and language, it wasn’t a place where my intense interest in this alternative form of communication could be nurtured and grown. That’s not what school was all about.
While I’ve had a very fulfilling career in education, I know that my true passion was revealed to me in Grade Five. It happened quite serendipitously, quite by accident. It is only now, some 42 years later that I’m actually beginning to live it!
So, how is this story connected with our current conversation on educational transformation? Well, it’s not at all connected with the push towards higher achievement as reflected in test scores or graduation rates. And it’s not connected with the cry to fix schools so that they more effectively deliver the type of education for which they were originally created. And it may not even be connected with the mandate to prepare every student for a post-secondary education.
It is, however, a story that speaks to me about schools becoming a place where passion and life can be discovered, explored and supported. It speaks about expanding, not narrowing possibilities for learners. It hints at engagement not just as something we do to students, but as something that becomes part of the energy of schools—something that enables learners to find what might continue to turn them on as they continue to move through life.
I do recognize that many secondary schools are now doing a much better job at providing programs that would have allowed me to play with my passion a little more. Our current research on engagement, however, does indicate that much of this is still considered extra and not part of the really important work of schools.
We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For asks us to weave a different narrative thread into our story of school—one that re-defines school as a place that is equally concerned with what learners hope for after graduation, rather than just graduation, itself.
Ironically, this evening, I will be sitting in my newly completed basement studio recording my the first episode of a new CEA podcast series, Teacher Voices. At 10:00 p.m. the door will close, the On Air sign will be activated (a gift from my wife) and I will be, for the first time in my life, living out that passion that was stirred up in Grade Five.
Way more to talk about here, but I’ll pose a few questions.
Do you think that it is the role of schools to nurture this sense of passion and possibility, or are we suggesting something that is simply beyond the reach of a school’s mission?
Are you part of a school community that is on the road to this type of transformative thinking? Do you know of a school vision that embraces these values?
As always, we would love to hear from you!