A Void of Passion: A Major Student Concern

Recently, Michael (co-author) and I launched QUEST in our classrooms, a foray into a student’s search for passion: their desire in life — what they want to do and give them purpose. QUEST meets weekly on Fridays for up to 3 hours and is not based on any traditional standards and consists of discussions, activities, and discovery of a “passion project” similar to genius hour.

Near the beginning of this activity, we ask students to think about and possibly identify with one of three scenarios with regards to “Where will you go after high school?”:

  • Having absolutely no idea.
  • Moving towards a “prestigious” job (i.e. lawyer, doctor).
  • A solidified passion they want to pursue.

When performing this activity, it’s shocking to note how many students never think about this. What is the point of education if freshmen students, who are planning on graduating in roughly 3 years, have absolutely no idea where to start? Why are we not giving them time to think?

The solution, in my opinion, to this is two-fold and would require time and investment. Schools need to drop “standards” and devote time to student interests. This is much different than taking “standards” and applying them to student interests. If I enjoy reading, and I’m forced to read things I don’t like, then I may lose my love of reading. If I enjoy reading, and I’m given structured “unstructured” time during the day to pursue what I love, I’d probably continue reading (or find something else similar). The constant call for “rigor” in schools has made our students, especially our most vulnerable, robotic — which, ironically, was one of the initial goals for factories.

In fact, this definitely brings into question if we’re just doing school too well. If the primary purpose of school is to teach standards (which, according to government measurement, financing, and college prep. testing, it is); making students into robotic regurgitating of B-level “core content” almost seems perfected. Whereas the “C student” may question what they’re learning and seek out additional information, an “A student” might ponder why they’re learning about passion rather than about advanced placement biology. This, of course, seems insane to me not on an educator level — as we’re constantly trained to think like this — but from a human perspective. Why would a student care more about doing well in school rather than having a purpose in life?

Assuming that a student buys into the activity, and believes that they could fulfill a purpose in life, then the only logical step is that thinking about what you want to do is not the same as preparing you for the steps to do what you want to do (college, vocational school, internships). One of the most common educational tropes is “preparing students for what’s next” — but we often therefore, never teach what was there. Our “best students” are usually the ones completely at a loss at what they want to do (and incidentally, fall into the “prestigious job” answer, from parental and cultural pressure. When prompted, these students tend to have no idea if they actually will enjoy it, they just want to make money).

A perfect example of the “preparing students for what’s next” mentality is an interaction that we had with one student. He stated that he wanted to be an investor. So, his game-plan was to enter the military to pay off his college loans, go to medical school and become a surgeon, work for 10–20+ years, then invest his money. Interestingly enough, when asked, “who exactly is going to be investing your money then?”, he responded — “an investor.” Without time to think about what we’re doing, students are not clearly envisioning the rest of their lives.

After some reflection on the before mentioned questions, students were divided seemingly between responses — about 1/3rd each. However, the third that had “no idea” was heavily concerning. What does an instructor do when a student has absolutely no goal in life? Keep in mind this is not in concerns to school — we’re not concerned with if someone wants to go to college or their grades — we’re simply asking what a student enjoys. Even when this is explained, many students could not answer. Their creativity and desire to learn had been expunged by their life experiences (and as a heavy contributor, schools).

Incidentally (and as one may assume), these are also students who struggle elsewhere: poor academic grades, a poor home life, economic struggles, identity struggles, or any combination. So — what do you do to help a student like this? Obviously, the easiest solution would be to “fix” the problems at their root, but that’s not feasible in most circumstances. Standards aren’t going away any time soon. Government officials don’t fight for what would be viewed as “free time” in school. Then, it becomes incredibly complex and nigh-impossible to reach a student, no matter what technique is used or the relationship is built. It may work in certain cases, but it is not fool-proof.

This leads to causal blame that most teachers readily accept when it comes to dysfunctional and underperforming students: it’s their parents, middle school teachers, community, income level, mental disorder, friend group — that’s causing the problem. Or — perhaps this problem has manifested for so long, is it possible that it’s too late? I constantly struggle to comprehend how to teach someone passion when they literally respond “I don’t know” to anything that’s prompted. Relationship building plays a part — but is there only so much one can do as a teacher? Are some students “too far gone”? That notion is taboo in the educational world, every student should matter, but what can we do in certain circumstances?

Consider the following dialogue (which actually occurred on multiple occasions):

Teacher: “So, if you don’t have a passion, what do you enjoy doing?”
Freshman Student: “I don’t know.”
“What are you going to do after high school?”
“I don’t know”
“Well, do you have any skills or activities you really love? A subject area? A talent?
“Not really.”
“What do you do for fun?”
“Sometimes I hang out with my friends. I don’t know.”
“Well….do you enjoy helping people?”
“I don’t know.”

Of course, there could be many dynamics at work here: resistance to openness, the teacher/student relationship, distrust in adults bred from their home life, and many other things. However, what if this is just trueinformation. There’s enough students that fall into this category that it is not outlandish to think that some students, quite frankly, do nothing interesting and have no passions. This is not to say that they’re not kind, or caring, or friendly, or “bad”, but rather they’ve never been exposed to any form of enlightening activities. Rigidly, they’ve been through the core workings of school with little parental support to nurture their passions. How can you inspire someone who does nothing?

If I were reading this article, my notion would be clear: “these teachers need to learn more about the student, talk to them, learn about them, and foster their interests. They just don’t know the child!” But, the more I try, care, and think about this, there’s no denying that it eats at my teaching soul — is there a possibility we’ve succeeded in creating the “perfect student”?