On motivating the Difficult Student

Brooke’s challenge post brought something to mind I’ve been struggling with myself in EDCI 335 this semester:

“In the coursework this term, and in my work, [I] feel like content and ideas are flying into my head, being held in temporary holding long enough to process it into a semi-reasonable response, and quickly vacating for the next piece.”

Having been curating a personal course of study online and in my classes informally now going on five years, the weekly demands of my Learning Design course have often felt like derivations from a larger arc of learning I am actively synthesizing in discussions, posts and reflection in the classroom and beyond it. While recognizing the benefit of encountering influence and dialogue outside my general sphere of inquiry, I have frequently struggled to successfully integrate the intended outcomes of the course with my own existing narrative of personal learning coming into this term.

My design posts, both on this blog and in our silo’d discussion boards have often only seemed loosely bound by the central thread at their centre – me. Generally I have made what feel like scattershot responses to questions and debates I am not meaningfully connected to, or are housed in terminology or semantic distinctions that I often have seen as problematic in my own thinking, and are interrelated only in so much as they correspond to a textbook whose author cautioned me that I “might not the target audience” for it.

It’s not that I don’t think there is value in exploring this conflict. Indeed, these epistemological and linguistic concepts of learning are aspects of any topic that I find interesting. Whether arts, politics or education, the construction and transformation of different epochs or paradigms cut to the heart of my foundational beliefs about life and learning, and are where my own philosophical values align with both my professional and personal learning intentions.

But as our units have progressed and each begun anew with the assertion of various contentious assumptions about learning and knowledge, I have felt constrained by the compulsion to reexamine these same premises in each new argument before presenting what would be my own interpretation of the topic or questions associated with it. This perceived distance from our covered topics have made me a poor contributor to the class’ various discussion threads and conversations and have left  me feeling generally that “Design Thinking” and I can just agree to disagree.

But here I am.

I continue.

Because I need the marks for this week’s assignment, and next week’s, and last’s.

Because I need to get a grade in this course that will allow me to continue in the next phase of my studies.

And because I’m driven by the fear that I will have not answered the question sufficiently, or might in exploring my own perspective on the topic be seen to be missing the point of the exercise entirely.

In and of themselves, these are grim motivational forces, it’s true. And at times they have brought about unfavourable turns of my student profile.

From an early age, I have possessed an anti-authoritarian streak that rejects anything that doesn’t yield personal relevance or connection before I can engage in it meaningfully. Similar to the gifted students I work with these days, I want to know why we’re doing this – whatever it is – before I can commit to doing it. And I want to ask questions about the meaning or the relevance of the activity itself often much more than I am ever willing to “just jump through the hoop” and meet the task head on.

But what might have seemed at younger ages as defiance or oppositional behaviour, I’ve come to believe is part of the spirit and tradition of intellectual and philosophical thought. In attempting to align a sense of my own epistemology with existing values of pedagogy, I feel only more firm in myself and confident to pursue and create such personal courses of study, even when it might not be the path of least resistance.

At thirty two I’ve come to feel more confident in my seventeen-year-old decision to include a satirical essay with my high school Graduation Portfolio that initially earned me a failing grade back in grade twelve. Responding to one of the topics, “How has your education prepared you for the future?” I took the opportunity to [sarcasm] graciously thank the school system for the opportunity to participate in the fledgling Career and Personal Planning curriculum [/sarcasm] in an essay that caught the eye of the teacher in charge of signing off on our portfolios. When my parents later demonstrated to an administrator that the teacher’s reaction to the essay had unfairly biased him toward the rest of my portfolio, I was issued a 50% and allowed to graduate on time in the end.

But I’ve been fascinated by this whole process ever since, and even more so now that I teach: why in the school’s opinion was it more important for me to be obedient, in that case, than to exercise my critical thinking?

And why did my school not look to engage me as a learner, rather than seeking first to punish me?

I can only assume that without my parents’ potential to embarrass the teacher and the school over the whole scenario, I would have been forced to comply with the their wishes and then either not graduate or submit a placative assignment. And while it’s not indicative of the entirety of schooling, and perhaps unfair to extrapolate based on a unique experience, the memory (evidently) guides me these days as both a teacher and a student.

As many teachers do, perhaps, I try to create learning opportunities that I would have seen as meaningful and thus benefitted from as a learner when I was a student. And the dual role created by Learning Design this semester has been eye opening as I reflect on my learning as a student when I’m  caught between the oft-quoted maxim that we should “never let education interfere with learning,” and the knowledge that there are certain responsibilities to be placated within institutionalized learning.

Somewhere between the chaotic wandering of rhizomatic learning and replicative-education there is a balance to be struck, isn’t there?

Or from circumstance to circumstance, will one always win out over the other?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this semester about what motivates me to learn, and a lot of time thinking about what triggers these instances where my motivation wanes. I’ve been thinking about how our institutions are set up to deliver on their mandate to produce beneficial skill-sets and competencies in younger generations, as well as nurture a lifelong love of learning in each of them.

And I wonder if these two aims might be at odds with one another, somehow?

How do we engage in organic learning, learning that is propelled by the individual within the (perceived) contexts of its collectives, and yet which fulfills these external, institutional measures as well?

The teachers who have been able to connect to my ‘difficult’ student are hopefully the ones I embody in my teaching these days. From elementary school, to university, to teacher-training and the informal spaces along the way, these teachers have been able to frame opportunities for learning as personally relevant and meaningful to me, and have acted as mediators between me as an individual and larger institutional requirements, contextualizing these experiences in terms that arouse my own motivation to engage and grow with them.

If the work of teachers is ultimately relational, and relies uniquely on our abilities of empathy and creativity, this is where much of it resides.

One Week Job

Friends of mine, Ian MacKenzie and Sean Aiken, have put their lack of direction to good use – and a good cause – with their One Week Job project.

One Week Job: The Documentary from Ian MacKenzie on Vimeo.

“Instead of take the first job that came along, he found a unique way of figuring it out: the One Week Job project. How it worked: Anyone, anywhere, could offer Sean a job for one week. Any money he earned for the work, he asked the employer to donate towards the ONE / Make Poverty History campaign. On his inspirational quest, Sean tried everything: Bungee Instructor, Dairy Farmer, Advertising Executive, Baker, Stock Trader, Firefighter, and more. Wherever he could find work, he’d go there, find a couch to crash on and immerse himself in whatever profession was at hand. And then he’d move on.”