If you ever had a chance to listen to a Nobel laureate or a leading scientist talk about what they are working on, you almost certainly will have noticed the two passions that mold their demeanor. On one hand, they live what they work on and radiate a passion for the subject they study. On the other, their intellectual stubbornness to pursue difficult questions reveals a passion for discovery.
At the same time, you might recall that they are not always very good at explaining in simple words what it is that they are working on. They are eager to talk about it, but their explanations are often way over our heads. In that sense, they are not necessarily great communicators or great teachers. They are, however, great motivators because the passions they exude can be captivating, inspiring, and peak our own curiosity. All students would benefit from being exposed to these passions in their own learning journeys. After all, passion breeds passion.
Passion for the content
When I was in high school, I had a teacher who was deep into a new theory about my native language, Flemish. It is one of the three official languages in Belgium, the country where I was born and grew up in. As all Germanic languages, Flemish has an extensive set of grammatical rules. Learning them often left the impression that there were more exceptions than there were cases that justified having the rules in the first place.
As has been the case with many difficult languages that are still in use around the world, there have been attempts to simplify them. My native language was no exception to that. What I got exposed to by this particular teacher was one of those attempts. I remember little if anything about the class, except for two things: first, all of us felt that this “simplification” made something that was already complicated more so; and second, the captivating passion the teacher exuded for this new language science.
Despite his passion (or perhaps because of it), the teacher struggled to explain to us the ins and outs of this new scientific approach to our native language. Me and my classmates could make neither head nor tail of the thing, but we all felt that we had to try because of the passion the teacher exhibited for this new science. If he thought it was great stuff, we could only benefit from conquering it ourselves.
Looking back at my years of formal schooling, I had a few teachers and professors who fit that mold; they weren’t necessarily great at communicating their knowledge but they exuded a passion for it. Unfortunately, only a few of my teachers were like that. Most lacked an inspiring enthusiasm, and that got in the way of my own learning.
For some of the subjects that I was exposed to in school, I still lack a basic understanding. In almost every case, I can point to a teacher who pulled the plug on my curiosity because of either a lack of passion for the material (“if he doesn’t care, why should I ?”) or a tyrannical eagerness to teach me (“why should I have to learn that ?).
The fact is that passion for the subject matter one teaches rubs off on students, especially on those with a learning mindset. That passion can be addictive and fan a similar passion in the students. Unfortunately, not all students get to experience that passion. More often than not, the problem lies with the teachers; they just go through the motions because it is their job. If they are bored with the material, how could the students feel any different?
Sometimes, the rigid educational system gets in the way as well. For example, as a trained researcher, I seldom got a chance to teach what I was actually doing research on (and, hence, was particularly passionate about). That bothered me and shortchanged my students.
Students can tell whether you are passionate about what you teach. If you are, you will inspire them to know more and set them on a path of learning. If you are not, you could well turn them away from the very thing you want them to learn.
Passion for discovery
Besides a passion for the subject matter, there is another passion that students should get exposed to: the passion for discovery. As humans, we are actualły wired for it. We all are born explorers, eager to discover ourselves and the world around us. Just look at the eagerness with which young children want to learn about the world around them, and the sparkle of wonder that appears in their eyes when they do. We see the same in the eyes of scientists who pursue questions none of us understand as important yet. They are passionately driven by an innate curiosity to answer questions, to uncover truths. This is a passion that all students should get exposed to because it promotes deep learning.
When a scientist explains what he or she is exploring, they explain their thinking and how they have been approaching the question they are seeking an answer to. They lay out the process of scientific discovery they followed including all the dead-end alleys they wondered into on the way.
For students to be able to align their own learning process with the scientist’s discovery process gives depth and perspective well beyond what any normal teacher can achieve. The latter focuses on the endpoint as an independent truth where the scientist explains it as just a stage in an ongoing journey of discovery. Deep learning is about understanding that answers embed questions and that learning is a never-ending process of discovery.
Unfortunately, few students get to experience the passion for discovery because our model of formal education has created a distance between knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination. As I discuss in my book, Rough Diamonds (https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds), most teachers are not the creators of the knowledge they convey; they are merely messengers of it. More importantly, what they teach is no longer tethered to its origin and discovery. Because of this, students miss out on an important driver for continued curiosity, learning, and intellectual growth.
The bottom line is that you do not necessarily have to be a great teacher or communicator to inspire students and guide them on their own path of learning. When I look back at my own formal schooling, the teachers that motivated me to learn were those who had a passion for the subject they taught and/or a passion for the process of scientific discovery that kept on raising questions they wanted to find answers to. Formal education teaches us how to rig the sails, but it is the wind of passion exuded by our teachers that pushes us along to know more, discover more, and learn more.