Passion and Perspective

Passion and Perspective
Passion is a fire that burns anything in its path

Teaching and learning is an extremely complex human transaction. In schools today, we worry that too many students are not experiencing positive learning experiences and therefore may become more of a burden to society rather than a contributor to society. We try to take the best lessons from research in improving our schools. Every state is currently engaged in re-examining standards and anticipating a next generation of student assessments. As a result of federal leadership, increased focus is placed upon creating rigorous teacher evaluation systems that are objective and standardized. It is hoped that an increased emphasis on evaluation will recognize outstanding teachers, direct mediocre teachers to professional improvement and expel substandard teacher from the profession. These evaluation efforts seek to identify a skills list that comprise the teaching process. This complex analysis of teaching is likely to result in what I call a “paralysis of analysis”. We may inadvertently create teachers that are so confused over trying to do the right thing in their classroom that they lose that excitement of engaging the student in thoughtful learning. Complex teaching frameworks and extensive rubrics for evaluating teachers may cause teachers to think too much about doing the right thing rather than focusing on learning and their students.
A talented athlete needs to learn the fundamentals of his or her sport but in the moment of competition they can easily become ineffective if they focus too much on all of the fundamentals of how to perform that sport. Outstanding athletes focus mentally on very simple thoughts with a very concentrated focus to achieve peak performance. Teaching is similar in that it is a complex practice that requires teachers to learn the fundamentals.  But every day in the classroom teachers need to focus very intensely on a few simple thoughts in order to be effective. Worrying about all of the fundamentals or a long list of teacher evaluation standards may actually cause teachers to become less effective in the transaction of teaching and learning.
Simple Mental Images
The two simple mental images that can be powerful mental models for effective teaching are passion and perspective. Passion evokes the emotions around learning and human interaction. We envision schools as buildings but schools are really communities that involve large numbers of students and teachers. The interactions between these large numbers of people are complex. When passion is brought to these transactions,  it has a significant ripple effect across a wide community similar to throwing a stone into a quiet pool of water creating waves of emotion that role through the community. Perspective has to do with the broader vision of high-quality instruction. Effective teachers constantly make adjustments in their instruction to adapt to the unique needs of students in his or her classroom. Learning can only occur if it builds on student's prior knowledge. If teachers have a clear focus perspective of what they're trying to accomplish with good quality instruction, it will guide their decisions on creating instruction that appropriately challenges students and gives them an opportunity to learn deeply.
Humans are social animals. Our brains are wired to respond to other humans around us. We use our senses of touch, smell, hearing and most importantly sight to connect with other humans. We do not connect on a logical, intellectual basis, we connect via emotions we innately use this aspect of emotions when we communicate with an infant child. We do not talk to a baby in rich colorful language using complex adjectives, grammatically correct sentences or statistics to sway our argument. We communicate with babies with nonsensical sounds and extreme fluctuations in tone and pitch. We do this because infants respond to those sounds. For they are characteristics of emotional laden communication.
Effective schools are not just about hiring good teachers in putting students in the classroom. Schools are a community and the emotions that one student brings to a classroom influence the emotions of others. Teachers likewise communicate to students the importance of learning when they introduce passion to their subjects and get excited about what they're teaching. That enthusiasm is contagious and likely to build student interest in that particular learning.
Learning involves emotion. Very little learning can occur without emotional engagement, but also too much in emotion can cause learning to shut down. Passion is that positive introduction of emotion that enables us to connect to other individuals and to influence their learning. Teachers can create a highly collaborative and positive learning environment in the school when they evoke passion in communicating with their colleagues. When teachers can approach their profession with enthusiasm and a positive energy that we describe as passion great things can happen regarding the learning transaction.  Here are Guidelines for Passion-based Learning.
Perspective is about a common direction moving toward high-quality instruction.  This perspective must be simple so that teachers can constantly focus on moving instruction toward a specific goal. The most successful perspective that I have seen in helping teachers move instruction positively is focusing on rigor and relevance using the Rigor/Relevance Framework. This framework describes four quadrants of learning. Quadrant A is low-rigor and low relevance learning - the basic facts and vocabulary that comprise foundation learning. Quadrant B is the application of learning where students get the opportunity to apply what they've learned often in hands-on activities deepening their knowledge through application. Quadrant C is extending learning to more complex problems. The reflects moving students from rote memorization to where their challenged to analyze, to reflect, to create and propose original solutions. Quadrant D learning is high rigor/high relevance in which students work through complex real-world problems often designing unique solutions and presenting their work to others.
When students participate in Quadrant D learning they are more likely to be intensely engaged in the work and more likely to retain the learning beyond the end of the semester. Students at any age can move to levels of high rigor or high relevance. While all students need to learn fundamentals they should not be held hostage to rote teaching of low rigor and low relevant skills before giving them the opportunity to engage in challenging applications of learning.
When teachers use the Rigor/Relevant Framework this gives them a positive perspective to think about the levels of their instruction. As they adjust instruction to meet the appropriate challenges of their students, they can constantly reflect how they can increase the rigor and relevance of their teaching. This perspective gives them a daily mental model that they can use to improve the quality of instruction over time.
Passion is exciting and can cause people to engage in their work more intensely. But if you approach teaching and learning with only passion you might be perceived by others as a member of the lunatic fringe. Perspective is powerful in giving teachers a mental model of how to improve instruction. But perspective alone may leave you a lonely intellectual in which you feel isolated from others that don't embrace that same perspective. However, the combination of passion and perspective can create an environment where high quality teaching and learning takes place on a daily basis. Passion and perspective cannot replace learning the fundamentals of good instructional practices, however passion and perspective can give high-performing teachers and appropriate way to think about their daily work and guide them to remarkable learning transactions with their students.