I am a bit worried about the popular assertion that students should be allowed to follow their passions, because if they do that too much they may never know what they don’t know. Deepening your understanding in areas of personal interest is constructive and rewarding, but it can become a downward spiral of diminished horizons unless someone or something disrupts this self-referencing process from time to time. For this reason, adults, and educators in particular, have a responsibility to expand students’ thinking as well as respond to their interests.
Although I strongly believe that students can and should take a more active role in their own education, it would be the proverbial ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ error if we were to decide that students will take the lead.
As they get older they can take more of the lead, but at all ages students need teachers to challenge them, figuratively speaking, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”1 Sometimes this means insisting that they do things they don’t want to do. Otherwise, how will they ever grow beyond the bounds of the comfortable and familiar?
Moreover, there is the matter of the curriculum. Society sets certain expectations for what students will learn and neither they nor their teachers are free to ignore that mandate. Students can neither opt out of parts of the curriculum that don’t seem to interest them nor focus exclusively on the ones that do. No matter how passionate they may be about, or how much they may detest, Art or Athletics or Technology or Poetry, the curriculum requires them to participate in a broad liberal arts program until the last couple of years of high school, at which time there is more individual choice. This is in the best interests of both the individual and society; it serves both the private good and the public good.
Student-centered learning does not mean letting the student decide what s/he wants to do. It means starting with the student’s circumstances and characteristics in order to build towards the outcomes that society has decreed through the curriculum. The teacher’s job is neither merely to impose the curriculum uniformly nor to accede to individual student preferences, but to mediate between the two so that students both deepen and broaden their understanding within the framework of the mandated curriculum.
The goal is to increase understanding and to diminish ignorance.2 One way to do that is to expand the boundaries of what students know and can do; that is, their competence. Another is to expand their awareness of the existence of that which they do not (yet) know and cannot (yet) do; that is, their awareness. Both increased competence and increased awareness represent learning. Lacking competence in some area is unfortunate but potentially remediable, whereas lacking awareness in some area is tragic because students are then blind to what is possible and dangerously presumptuous about their prowess. If we don’t shine a light in unfamiliar corners and lead them out of their comfort along surprising pathways then we are not truly educating them, we are merely indulging their interests. Ultimately, of course, we hope students will develop the curiosity and the courage to forge new pathways into the unknown, perhaps discovering new passions that they had not previously imagined.
Students should be given much more choice in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning, and they should also have some more choice in what they learn – they should definitely have opportunity and support to discover and develop personal passions – but teachers and parents also need to exercise their responsibility for expanding the boundaries of students’ inclination and shining a light as far as possible into the infinite ignorance that surrounds their, and humanity’s, current knowledge.
Sometimes what students don’t know they don’t know is what they most need to know in order to enable them.
1 This was the mission of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek TV series, which was intended to capture the pioneering spirit, not only physically but also intellectually.
2 Type One Ignorance is what I don’t know. Type Two Ignorance is what I don’t know I don’t know. The former is finite and the latter is infinite.