Will Work for Meaning

Everyone, Will Richardson argues in this recent MindShift post, seeks meaningful and important work … but very few schools provide “work that matters” to their students.  In an EdSurge piece, Alex Hernandez calls on educational innovators to move beyond improving the work of teachers to focus on peer-to-peer and independent forms of learning.  In this piece, Robert Talbert addresses the concerns of both teachers and students for whom lecture, teaching, and learning are apparently synonymous.  And Bernard Bull draws an important distinction between different kinds of engagement … the kind that comes from listening to a compelling storyteller and the kind that comes from doing the things.

All four articles showed up in Twitter or Google+ shares in the last few days, and that doesn’t feel like a coincidence.  They have many threads in common, but one of the most important is the idea that, when learners see purpose and meaning (especially beyond the classroom walls) in the work they do, they’ll be inspired to work for that meaning and purpose … much more inspired than they are to work for a grade, a sticker, or another shiny extrinsic reward.

But is it possible to become so jaded, so used to the factory-approach, that you can’t actually see purpose and meaning when it’s right there in front of you?  Is it possible to see, but reject opportunities for purpose and meaning?  And how might a joyful learning community respond productively if that’s happening?

If you asked them, N, T, U, G, and C would probably claim they “just want to get a good grade,” and so would B, U, C, E, and J.  After so many years of playing the school game, you’d think they would all play it well and get the shiny rewards they say they want … but they don’t.   For a while I thought it was just a Latin Family thing, just the conflict between our joyful learning community goal and some of the lingering, unavoidable school game aspects of classes and grades.  But then I talked to Ms. X about G

G, it seems, had said he wanted to do the real-world, hands-on alternative to the Standard Worksheet Approach in Ms. X’s class … a new option, mandated by The Curriculum and some Powers That be, that Ms. X is actually happy about.  G had claimed he’d be well-prepared for the task, and then promptly and disastrously failed at it.  “He didn’t study,” she said, “and he didn’t practice at all, so it’s not like he should have expected to do well. ”  But apparently G was really surprised by his poor performance!  And on his Major Assessment Individual Response yesterday, G was equally suprised to discover that, after several weeks of half-attention and minimal effort, his language proficiency hadn’t grown.  “It would have been fine,” I told him, “in the middle of Latin I … but that’s not where we are, and that’s not what our target is.  What do you think you need to do about it?”

G’s friends were equally stuck in their language proficiency … and for similar reasons.  “We need to pay more attention,” they all said, “and stay focused and involved.”  But within fifteen minutes they were back to Business As Usual.  So were B, U, and their friends … though their Major Assessment Individual Responses will be happening today, so maybe, just maybe, they haven’t yet made the connections between their lack of effort and the lack of growth.

Or maybe they have, but they just don’t care about growth and effort.  Maybe the tasks that seem meaningful and important to the rest of the Latin Family just don’t seem that meaningful or important to them, or maybe they just don’t care because it all seems too hard.  We’ve talked about things that seem hard before, and the appearance of difficulty seems to terrify all of them.  Sitting and chatting (or almost screaming, because they all have very little awareness of their natural volume levels or how to modulate them) … that’s easy and fun.  Half-doing, or half-heartedly copying, Ms. X and Mr. Y’s worksheet or definitions … that’s not fun, but it’s easy.  Tuning out of what’s going on in front of us in favor of something else … that’s easy, of course, and it’s fun in the moment even if it leads to yelling and labeling from Ms. X and Mr. Y a moment later.

Meaning and purpose beyond the classroom walls, all four articles say, will help to change that paradigm for N, G, and the others … but who gets to define meaning and purpose?  In the end, only N, G, and their friends can do that … and they have to do it for themselves.  “Do you see what you need to do?” I can ask, and I can provide opportunities and structures to help and support.  But even Ms. X, Mr. Y, and all the Powers That Be with their threats and promises can’t actually make N, G, and their friends do the work or do the learning.

I’d intended to write a very different post this morning, one about the inspiring and challenging presentation the Monday Evening Book Group attended last night.  But this is the one that appeared … and as I read it again, I’m glad.  Joyful learning community doesn’t mean happy all the time or free from struggle, and that’s important to remember.  It doesn’t mean saving them all, either, or making people become part of a community whether they want to or not.  What it does mean, I think, is working for meaning and working for change, persisting in that work even when everything seems to go wrong and the lure of Business As Usual is at its strongest.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await us today!


Published in: on May 6, 2014 at 10:47 am  Leave a Comment  

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