Thursday, April 8, 2010

Passionate Learning

This morning I was thinking about teachers and learners, and whether learning should ever feel like drudgery. I'm convinced that, while hard work is usually a part of the learning process, drudgery does not need to be. In fact, anytime a learning task becomes drudgery, very little true learning will take place.
So how do we learn--and how should be teach? I think the answer to both questions is the same: great teaching and true learning only occur where there is interest, even passionate interest, in a subject. The learning process is further catalyzed when the relationship between teacher and learner is one of real interest--the kind of interest in another person that can come only from real love for that person.
When a student is already passionate about a topic, the most that may be needed from a teacher or mentor is a little guidance along the way. Learning takes place because the student feels an appetite for knowledge and is ready to actively pursue learning. But what if the appetite is not there? That is where the role of a passionate teacher or mentor becomes critical. I remember a particular college professor who inspired a great appetite for learning in his students. His area of expertise was microbiology, and he was truly passionate about the subject. The minute he walked into the lecture hall students would sit up and lean forward in their chairs, energized by his energy and interested by his interest. His classes were some of the hardest I took in college, but they were also some of the best. By contrast, I remember signing up several semesters in a row for a calculus class. I would walk into class the first day, and there at the board would be a professor who seemed tired and bored; you felt that he had taught this class hundreds of times in the past and found nothing of interest in the subject. Every semester, I dropped that class after the first session--all I could see ahead was months of drudgery. In both the microbiology and the calculus classes, I arrived the first day with a moderate interest in the subject matter--in one case, that interest was fueled by the spark from a passionate teacher; in the other, it was virtually extinguished.
As teachers, we sometimes find ourselves faced with the problem of teaching something about which we are not passionate. What can we do? I don't think that trying to pretend a passion for a subject that we don't actually feel is effective--students will be able to discern that difference. I do think it is possible to ignite passion in ourselves. Every subject has fascinating aspects, but we may need to dig a little deeper or try a different approach before we find our own inspiration. If that fails, maybe we can find someone to teach who is passionate about the subject--or we can let that subject drop for a time a go where our own and our students' interests lead us. Ultimately, such an approach will result in much greater and deeper learning that hundreds of hours of slogging through something that feels like drudgery.


Karene said...

Amen. I totally agree with this and have seen it in Cole...the things he knows and understands best are things that he has a passionate interest in. I like your thoughts about how to spark interest where it's absent. Good food for thought!

Elisabeth said...

I think the mark of a great teacher lies more in a passionate interest in teaching than it does in a passionate interest in the subject. Some element of both is desireable...but I can think of many instances of people who have a passionate interest in a topic but are very poor teachers. In your calculus example, it seems likely to me that your instructors were passionate about math; teaching, however, requires communicating that passion to the student - and that obviously didn't happen.

I once asked a great music teacher who had taught the same pieces to hundreds of students over a 20-year period whether she ever got tired of hearing those pieces. Her response illustrates to me why she was such a great teacher: she said she didn't get tired of hearing the same pieces because she looked forward each week to seeing how each student had progressed. I don't think she was passionate about the repertoire she taught - but she was passionately engaged in the teaching process, figuring out how to help each student master the repertoire.

Maile said...

I definitely agree with this post. When I think back to my high school days, I know that my interest in a subject was definitely influenced by the passion of my teachers. Elisabeth's comment is very interesting - the idea that passion for teaching is more important than passion for the subject. I can certainly see that being true when I try to teach my kids about some things they're interested in that I'm not.

Melody said...

My main experience with this topic relates to a high school biology class. I just crusied through most of the year doing the minimum amount of work necessary, then when I sat down to study for the exams, I finally discovered how fascinating Genetics was. The passion wasn't kindled by the teacher obviously but through my interaction with a TEXTBOOK (oh gasp) of all things.

This discussion also leads me to ponder upon passionate teaching in our callings in the church. My dh and his childhood friend have great memories of one particular seminary teacher they had. When I pressed them for information, they both agreed that this teacher regularly shared spiritual experiences and bore a strong testimony of the principles they were learning.

D&C 88:120 comes to mind....That your incomings may be in the name of the Lord, that your outgoings may be in the name of the Lord, that all your salutations may be in the name of the Lord with uplifted hands unto the Most High.

If we truly love something, it won't just be a 15 minute lesson, we will live it and breathe it and talk of it and study it.

I have also found in my own personal life that as I came to see God's hand in all the world around me, it led me on to a greater passion for understanding His marvelous creations and to honour Him through my active appreciation of them, be it physics or language or music or anything else.

Anyway, that is more than I intended to say. It seems that the discussion of passion is igniting a passion in me to understand it better. lol Thanks for the thoughts; they have left me much to ponder upon.