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When I reveal that I am a retired teacher, many folks will begin a discussion about the challenges of being a teacher and the problems with education. After 28 years in the classroom, I could profundicate and philosophize all the day long on the subject. A few days ago the subject came up and several well worn paths were traversed until the other party referred to a story I told about students really learning as “incidental learning”. That got me fired up because the term means that the learning was “accidental / indirect / additional / unplanned”. (1) The learning that I described was quite intentional, direct, central, and planned. What was actually different about it was that it was intended to solicit interest and passion for the learning process and the subject matter. I referred to these lessons as Affective Biology.

I will not be able to pronounce the solution for all educational woes in this short article, and many of them are moral rather than educational anyway, but one thing that my experience assures me of is that students only learn well what they are interested in. Teach them what they want to learn about, what they are curious about. Teach them concepts relevant to their life and useful to their pursuits. Entice them to learn about things they don’t think they are interested in by showing them the need of it to understand and do they things they are interested in.

Now those who develop and command curriculum will wring their hands at this point because “the student needs a well rounded education” and besides, they don’t know what they are interested in. Both of these ideas are true, but “because I said so” or “it looks good on your college resume” or “we want you to be a well rounded individual” do not cut it with the blissfully or belligerently ignorant.

Instead, explore and promote curiosity. Answer seemingly random questions and facilitate research of interests and unexplored rabbit trails. Go deep enough that the students have to want the seemingly “boring” rote learning to have the tools to understand. Make deals with them so that they can explore while agreeing to give you full attention on developing tools for their tool box that they don’t think they even need. Be honest enough to tell the student that not every moment or concept of learning is exciting, but much is needful to understand the real interests of the learner.

Be a passionate learner yourself and your students will catch the fire of passionate learning. Tell them stories of how you learned and what interests you have and how learning deepens their experience of life as it has deepened yours.

By the way, none of this will work with straight jacket curriculum and mind numbing standard testing. I’m done. I’ll put that back in the box. I’m a retired teacher. (2)

  1. Incidental learning – EduTech Wiki (unige.ch)
  2. But I would love to hear what other teachers have to say about it.

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