12/05/2012 06:37 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Just Tell Me What to Write About

If it's December, it must be the season of final papers. And for many of my students it's a time of panic.

My standard final paper prompt for the students in my introductory Foundations of Education course is to write about something they were passionate about during the course. My rationale is that this is an opportunity to more carefully explore a complex issue, whether it touches upon the philosophy or history of education, multicultural education or educational policy.

And every year, I always get the same response. About a third of the class will come to my office hours, one by one, sit down, and tell me that they do not know what to write about. So I try to prod them: What inspired you? What made you angry? Which author did you fundamentally disagree with? What caused an "aha" moment? All of these questions, I explain, can help you realize what you want to explore in a deeper and more systematic way.

This helps some students articulate an idea and leave with some focus. But for many others, they somewhat self-consciously say that they just don't know. It was a good class, they say, but nothing really stood out for them. This is hard to hear.

But you cannot be a teacher, I say to them, if you cannot find your passion. You cannot teach others if you do not have the motivation to teach yourself. If your education is just jumping through hoops, then your own teaching will perpetuate the same. Unless you break that pattern. So I send them off with my standard demand: write your final paper on why you cannot find your passion.

This is kind of a set up. One of my class reading assignments is a section from Philip Jackson's classic Life in Classrooms, where he talks about how the "hidden curriculum" of the classroom is all about crowds, praise, and power. Whereas the "explicit curriculum" is what actually gets taught (such as math, history, and biology), Jackson argues that what really influences and impacts us are the things that are embedded and implicit in how school gets conducted. Such as that we are now just part of a group, or that we quickly come to yearn for being positively evaluated, or that what really matters is what the teacher writes on the board and not the students.

In that class I make my students count up the number of hours they have spent in a chair in a classroom since kindergarten. It's close to 14,000 hours. As just one counter-example, I remind them that it probably only took them about 20 hours to learn how to drive a hurtling two-ton car down a highway at sixty miles an hour in rush-hour traffic. That's a lot of learning in a really short amount of time. Imagine what we learned in 14,000 hours that has nothing to do with the subject matter.

What we learned, I suggest, is how to jump through hoops. This is what the Stanford educational historian David Labaree termed a "social mobility" mindset where students ask "is this on the test?" because what we care about is the credential rather than the learning. And after 14,000 hours, my students have become really, really good at jumping through hoops.

So when they are faced with an open-ended prompt, they panic. Tell me what to write about, they say, and I'll do a good job.

And I'm sure they will. But that's not my goal.

My goal is to break exactly that mentality. It is to force my students to confront the reality that to be a teacher requires that they teach. Yet we cannot truly teach what we do not care about. So they must learn how to find that passion for themselves. For now, with my prompts. But in the end, they're on their own.

And that, to be honest, is the real panic I am trying to prevent.