Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Following Your Dreams or Living an Illusion?

Ken Robinson, Sir, you are killing me!  I know you probably didn't mean for people to interpret your words in a warped way.  Nobody does.  But that's what happens when you use several rare examples as if they are the norm and send people off to change the world.

Some of my students watched his TEDTalk - the most watched TEDTalk in all the land - and, likely because of it, came away with a firm position that if they're doing poorly, it's entirely because their teacher (me) isn't inspiring enough.  A good teacher with good curriculum - not at all like we have in the schools now - will be able to get absolutely anybody to achieve absolutely anything.

So it goes.

But I should start at the beginning because I provoked the whole debate.

I started out as an art teacher, and, after a few years of truly believing I could teach anyone to paint, I came to the disheartening conclusion that there are just some people in the world who, A, can't see the way an artists needs to see, and/or, B, have no ideas or inspiration to create anything at all.  Ever.  Lists and lists of suggestions don't help a hoot.  But it is what it is.  Some people just can't create art.  And that's okay.  I will never be able to write a concerto or opera or anything of the sort.  I can play piano, but I can't create music.  That's a different set of abilities, and, dare I say, talents.  Some people can do things other people can't and vice versa.  That's nothing groundbreaking.

Then later, after a few years of teaching philosophy, I came to a similar conclusion about critical thinking.  This is a harder sell because most people will readily admit if they can't create art or music, but few will admit they can't create opinions.  But every year, I'd get a few in class that would parrot other people's opinions, then be completely unable to offer supports because they didn't think the ideas through for themselves.  I know all the tricks to getting kids to think critically, and for most people they work.  But there's always a few that just don't get it.  They can't debate or critique, and they don't really want to.  And that's okay.  Really, it is.  Agreeable people can be a breath of fresh air after a surly debate with a fellow critical thinker.

The problem, I suggest, is that we elevate some talents and abilities above others.

But back to the argument at hand.  When I threw all this out for debate questioning how to grade people on something that is outside the limits of some people's abilities, instead of the typical dialogue about the nature of talent and the limits of human capacity, it was put forth that a good art teacher should be able to teach any student how to be a brilliant artist.  The only thing stopping a student from achieving excellence is the teacher and the curriculum.  Any counter from me that the student might also bring something to the table was pounced on with a measure of outrage.   If some kids didn't become great artists under my tutelage, it's entirely because I didn't believe they could. I solely created that reality for them.  And then I thought to myself, "I wonder if they recently saw that vacuous Robinson talk in another class."  And they just had!

I had a few supporters too, a few that hadn't been sufficiently taken with Robinson's spiel, but that's besides the point.

Can a teacher's attitude towards you affect how well you achieve in their course?  Absolutely.  Being told they'll never succeed can make some give up trying, but pointing out a significant difficulty with the work doesn't create the struggle.  I spent years agreeing with Robinson's premise and got no better results.  And when I stopped agreeing, I didn't stop helping or encouraging, I just accepted a different standard of achievement from a few of the kids in the class.

Here's the biggest problem with that talk and with the new and improved direction the education system is headed:  it completely removes any responsibility from the students' hands.  If students fail because they didn't do any work, then it's entirely because the teacher was uninspiring.  This is a bigger problem than the school atmosphere because we already have a generation of adults that refuses to take responsibility for their actions.  I'm thinking mainly of political scandals here and all the back-pedalling that goes on regularly by our leaders.  We are already showering kids with child-like role models, and now we're giving them all the excuses they need to succeed in this dystopian society.

But, as Robinson suggests, if we get better teachers with a better curriculum, everyone will find their passion and suddenly be inspired to do incredibly creative work, and we'll all live happily ever after.  Somehow teenagers will no longer be bored or lethargic or apathetic ever again.  And the only thing standing in the way of this miracle is me clutching my old-school ideas about teaching.  The power I apparently have over this corner of world is breathtaking!

And the problem with giving up responsibility and laying the blame externally, is that it automatically places the control over the problem (and solution) externally.  There's a freedom that comes with taking blame for your own actions and acknowledging an internal control over the issue.  Strange but true!  If it's my fault, then I can fix it.  If it's completely my choice, then I can take a different route.  But that first step of acknowledgment can include a bit of guilty feelings which is mighty uncomfortable, because if it's our own fault, then why didn't we do something about it sooner?  It's a big hurdle to get over for far too many.

As my mom would say, "Either learn from your teachers or learn in spite of them.  But it's up to you to make sure you get a good education from the world."  What happened to that kind of mentality?  I can open many doors and ignite a few lightbulbs, but I'm no muse, nor do I care to be.

The other message kids get from Robinson and others now is that they can do anything they want if they put their minds to it.  With the right teacher and course, anybody can be amazing at anything.  While I believe that a positive attitude can take you a long way through a difficult stretch of much effort with slow results, I also believe there's a limit to our abilities.  Further, I believe that one of the most important things people need to know about themselves is their own limitations.  Celebrate your abilities, but also recognize when you're on the wrong path.

I think about this any time I watch the first round of contestants on So You Think You Can Dance.   Some have a passion and a love for dance, and that's great.  They should dance every free moment they have.  But no amazing teachers can help many of these first-rounders.  And to spend the time and money to get on a show to compete with trained dancers just to be humiliated (and typically not even accept how poorly they did), and to believe that something you do horribly is something you can do professionally, is to live in a fantasy world.  It's nice in there, and everyone thinks you're perfect the way you are, but it's not authentic.  It's not the real you that's living this life if you're living with an illusion of limitless potential.

Human beings are fallible and imperfect and highly flawed.  And prone to redundancies.  The idea that we can all achieve greatness but for one external and fixable barrier is just plain goofy.  People buy it because, gosh, it would be so nice.  But it's a scam, a red herring that has us spending too much time reforming education instead of actually helping the kids. We're no longer embracing that "learn to accept what you cannot change" thing, and to our peril.

 It also reminds me of the Freaks and Geeks pilot episode when Nick wanted to be a drummer:

He's passionate about drums, and his excitement is contagious, but then he actually auditions for a gig and is rejected outright.  He's not anywhere close to the calibre necessary to make a living at his dream, and he realizes he doesn't have the discipline to get himself there.  It's disappointing, but it set him on a path where he actually could achieve some goals.  They're less exciting goals, sure, but they're no less laudable.

Of course there are people who break all barriers to get to their dream despite all the naysayers, but they're a rare lot.  Having a goal and putting in the effort often don't get you there - we just loudly celebrate the few who make it and forget the very many who don't.   Having high expectations that don't suit abilities or temperament lead many to poverty and depression.  That's the downside to following your passion.

Don't get me wrong - it's great to have aspirations, and it's fun to dream about what could be.  I still recycle in the hopes that it will help save the world.  But it's torturous to watch people follow dreams of professions that are painfully out of reach.  I've had students who struggle to follow a train of thought yet want to be a criminal lawyer because of that one lawyer who helped them beat the rap.  I tell them they have to pass applied-level English courses before they can take academic courses before they can go to university before they can go to law school, but first, can they please write a five-sentence opinion paragraph?  And too many can't or won't, yet they don't give up that dream, because it's their dream and nobody can take that away from them, dammit!  And if they don't make it?  It's all my fault for not being inspirational enough.

But I don't have to live with the consequences of doing nothing in class because the teacher wasn't provocative; they do.  They can think I ruined their lives, but it has a negligible effect on my life, and an enormous effect on theirs.  It will make them stuck and unable to move forward - not the uninspired teaching they got in high school, but the believe that it was the be all and end all of their creativity.

I had some mighty dull teachers in my time, but I persevered regardless.  I wasn't about to believe they had any power over my ability to do anything.  I took pleasure in the belief that only I am in control of my own life.  I've also had many many experiences with people who openly suggested I shouldn't bother trying to do whatever I was on to, but that did nothing but make me work even harder to prove them wrong.  A 20-minute film that insists schools are destroying personal potential, that takes away a personal internal locus of control,  is far more harmful than a series of boring lectures.

And I ask: What's the benefit of encouraging kids to hang on to unrealistic expectations?

This all bothers me also because "reach for the stars" typically implies a hierarchy of careers and goals.  I'm not a famous anything, so I don't really rate.  And I have no aspirations to get further in my career than I already am.  Don't be fooled by my rants; I absolutely love my job.  I'm content to be exactly where I am, yet somehow that's lowly, as if I've given up.  I'm supposed to be constantly reaching and striving.  But maybe I'm good.  And maybe teaching kids to constantly reach also teaches them to never be content.  Why is that the road we're promoting these days??
"The Master never reaches for the great; thus she achieves greatness."
     - Tao Te Ching, verse 63  

ETA: Mike Rowe agrees.

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