Students Are Falling Through the Passion Gap in Schools

This post was original featured on Smartblogs on Education in Inspiring Others

Nothing great in the World has been accomplished without passion.” — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, German philosopher, 1832

I recently spoke at the Dell Innovation in Education Panel at the Texas Association of School Administrators 2013 Conference in Austin.

When we were invited to sum up at the end, I realized that one guest had not been invited to the table: Passion. I was the first to interject this word, saying that “passion should not be the number one thing on the agenda, it IS the agenda.”

The #TASA13 hashtag on Twitter, which had been moving moderately, exploded, with several dozen tweets supporting my statement.

At any other conference in any other industry, passion is on the lips of nearly every participant, but at some education conferences, you are far more likely to hear the words “assessment,” “standardize,” “common core” and “pedagogy” than you are to hear the word “passion.”

There is a passion gap in education, and students are falling through it and drowning in ennui.

This is not to say that students are never passionate at school. As a teacher at the K-2 level for 14 years, I had the privilege of spending each day with children eager to learn and explore. Yet this begins to change somewhere around the fourth grade.

Why does passion matter? What are the real-world implications of an education system that discourages passion?

In a recent column in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman explained that “we need everyone to be innovating new products and services to employ the people who are being liberated from routine work by automation and software. The winners won’t just be those with more I.Q. It will also be those with more P.Q. (passion quotient) and C.Q. (curiosity quotient) to leverage all the new digital tools to not just find a job, but to invent one or reinvent one, and to not just learn but to relearn for a lifetime.”

When Bill Gates appeared on “The Colbert Report,” Colbert asked Gates whether data or passion was more important to him in pursuing his foundation’s aims. Gates response? “I think passion is probably the most important…backing scientists who have great ideas.”

So if passion is so essential in the work world, how do we invite passion to stay in school past fourth grade? How do we bridge the passion gap between school and the rest of life?

Schools mistake passion for an emotion, as something kids like to do in their spare time. Those are hobbies. Passion is what you must do, even if you have to suffer to do it. Passion is the genius of all geniuses. It’s discipline at a level we can’t comprehend. To release a passion, a student may need above all else a role model. It may be a parent, an aunt, a neighbor, a coach, but as often as any of these, it is a teacher.

To lay the groundwork for students to develop passion, teachers must do two things – greet students — by name — when they walk in and hug them (either physically or metaphorically) when they leave. Whatever happens in between, students will remember that you notice them and they mean something to you. Teachers must let students know that they expect that students will accomplish great things. All of this may sound trite, but it is derived from the responses we received when we asked 500,000 students last year, “What would make you run to school?” These responses are not confined to the young; they mirror the results when a similar question was asked of 7,000 adults.

Sir Ken Robinson writes, “Passion is a deep attraction. It can be for someone else or for a process: music, maths, cooking, sport, entrepreneurship, teaching… whatever fires your imagination and stokes your energy. We all have different aptitudes and we have unique passions. The challenge is to find them because it’s in the fusion of both that we live our best lives.”

When will your school declare that its mission is to help students find the fusion of their aptitudes and passions to live their best lives?

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  • D. A. Adams

    I’ve taught English on the collegiate level for nearly 15 years, and over that time, I have seen a precipitous decline in students’ passion and curiosity. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, they drone through life on auto-pilot with little eagerness to explore, to dabble, to experiment with ideas. I have tried to ignite passion by sharing my love for language, by demonstrating what it means to feel passionately about something, but typically, all I get in return are blank, distant stares.

  • Mike Sporer

    So true, Angela! Many schools are treating students like machinery, and learning as an achievable goal rather than a process. Thanks for bringing passion to the table.

  • Jack Durish

    I believe that every child is born with a passion to learn. They are little learning machines until schools beats it out of them. Well, that’s my opinion.

    I was a terrible student, yet a very successful teacher. No, I never taught in a school system. However, I have stood in front of many classes teaching many different subjects. My most interesting experience came in teaching piloting, seamanship, and small boat handling to juvenile gangsters. The facility in which they were incarcerated had its own “schoolhouse” and a staff of regular teachers who viewed their purpose as warehousing the boys. I offered to help them. I told them that I could incorporate any academic subject in my lessons – math, science, history, etc. They never took me up on it.

    Indeed, on one occasion, the senior teacher, their acting principal, was upset after finding one of the tests I had given them. She claimed it was “too hard” and would discourage them. She was upset when I told her that every boy had scored 90% or better. (She was probably upset because she couldn’t pass it – she tried.)

    I succeeded because I found a hidden well spring of passion, even in these delinquents. They loved riddles, and I began every class with one.

  • TS Bray 

    Genius! Thank you for writing this post and pointing out the major issue in education today — a lack of passion. It isn’t that there aren’t passionate educators, there are loads of them, but passion isn’t the focus of educational discussions and it should be.

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