Lighting a Fire!

LIGHTING A FIRE | by Mark Gura

My favorite education quote? Hands down, it’s “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This one is often attributed to William Butler Yeats, the famous Irish poet and playwright. And honestly, I can’t think of a better way to explain in words and illustrate through mental images just how the institution of Education has gone so far astray.

Our standardized tests call for students to pick through the buckets of their brains to locate pieces of memorized fact and snippets of basic skills, routines that will help them determine whether answer A, B, C, or D is the correct one. And since the scores that these tests yield have come, in the minds of many, to be emblematic of learning itself, filling those buckets with more and more pieces and snippets has become the overarching strategy for success of our schools.

On its own this folly would be tragic because much of the emphasis has become to focus on learning that is truly trivial and irrelevant. But the damage goes much further than that. It turns out that memorizing pieces of fact and snippets of skills is boring, bordering on mind numbing. And so the net effect of our current approach is that not only are our students encouraged to learn the wrong things, but in the process they are transformed into unmotivated learners who are unaware that learning can be truly exhilarating and joyful.

Worst of all, while all this is going on, real opportunities to turn kids on to self-directed, meaningful learning are passed over. And as this situation has become more and more the norm, schooling has evolved so that there are fewer and fewer approaches to be seen that are directed at lighting the sorts of fires in the minds and spirits of young people that Yeats was talking about. Not only are there fewer available programs and activities associated with this philosophy, but there are fewer teachers and supervisors aware of and adept at it, fewer curricula that foster it, and fewer classrooms that can function as learning environments to support it. Educating young people this way should not be the curiosity or discussion point that it has become. It should be the norm!

By the way, lighting fires was never an approach that traditionally received sufficient bandwidth in our schools. Activities and programs associated with it were most often seen as marginal extras or enrichment. It’s sad and alarming though that since the No Child – Standardized Testing – Culture of Accountability philosophy took hold, we have moved further and further away from it. It’s even more disheartening when one comes to realize that due to the viral proliferation of available free and low-cost Web 2.0 resources, lighting learning fires has never been easier. Beyond desire, all that’s necessary is a clear understanding of what needs to be done and a little easily acquired knowledge in the use of these tools and the pedagogy of putting them into action. Likewise, actualizing this philosophy has never been more important, as this approach is by far the most relevant and potentially effective one for today’s students, particularly in view of the fact that it involves them in the skills they must learn to prosper in the world they will live and work in.

From time to time a PBS Frontline, a CBS 60Minutes, or an NPR special series rediscovers the nation’s dropout crisis and presents it to the public anew, along with suggestions on how we might deal with it. Such coverage usually relates the obligatory alarming statistics “3.8 million kids will start high school this year… one quarter won’t graduatefrom a recent NPR piece, for instance. It typically delivers earnest affirmations from educational leaders and advocates on how we must solve the problem. And it usually highlights, as well, heart-wrenching stories about innocent individuals caught up in it all. What’s always missing from these series, though, is a core, actionable philosophy of education that will get us back on the right track and keep our schools from encouraging students to dropout.

Engaging students in projects that support them in identifying what genuinely interests them; that provide them focus and a solid, relevant rationale for learning; that structure their activities so that they discover, express, and reflect on the real world; and that put their hands on the tools and media that make living today so exciting – these are the things that keep kids enthused about learning. Such projects are most commonly facilitated by technology and concrete examples abound on the web: the Adobe Youth Voices media gallery, iEarn’s collaborative project catalog, the My Hero Project’s gallery, tech4learning’s lesson archive, the ThinkQuest project library; these, and so many more, make up an ever growing list of good examples. This body of evidence stretches across the Internet as a trail left by insightful teachers who’ve married contemporary information/communications technology and their students’ own curiosity and desire to learn to produce meaningful learning experiences.

While the bad news may be that the philosophy of lighting learning fires doesn’t currently figure importantly in the plans and priorities of misguided educational policy makers, there’s good news out there, too. There’s an extensive body of curriculum and practice already widely disseminated on the web that’s simply waiting for the education sector to “get it” and apply it. There’s also a vast and growing portfolio of dazzling, online information and media tools available to students who are hungry to take their place alongside the real-world magic makers they admire and want to emulate. Items like Animoto, VoiceThread, SlideShare, YouTube, Yola and a host of others beckon youngsters who are ready to apply themselves to learning content and communications skills in order to explore their world, develop their own take on things, and share their learning, reflections, and opinions. Clearly, there are students everywhere waiting for a spark to ignite their minds and spirits. Shouldn’t we make providing it education’s most core philosophy and approach?

In future columns I’ll be exploring this philosophy further. I’ll be identifying resources and practices that the world’s educators can use to adopt it and have it shape activities they can proudly present to their students, as well as celebrating educators who’ve made it their own in ways worthy of notice. I hope you’ll join me.


Mark Gura was a public school teacher in East Harlem for two decades, a staff and curriculum developer for the New York City Department of Education for five years, and was eventually tapped to establish their Office of Instructional Technology, where he was Director for 7 years, supervising professional development in the use of technology citywide. After retiring, he joined Fordham University’s Regional Technology Center and continues to write, speak, podcast and share his unique insights and knowledge. Visit: and also:  Write to:

  • David Potter


    Thanks for the iEARN shout-out! Look forward to future posts!

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