The Problem With Desire Paths

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about “desire paths” lately, and I don’t like where the talk is going.

Tony Baldusaro tells a charming story about desire paths: officials at Disney World were upset about customers scarring the lawns by cutting across them instead of sticking to the sidewalks.  They asked Walt Disney how they could protect the lawns and keep the public on the designated paths, and Disney replied, “They’re telling you where to put the paths.”

Baldusaro draws a parallel with the classroom.

Fast forward to the typical … American classroom and ask, “Are our students telling us where to put the paths?” and if so, what are we doing about it?  Are we following Disney’s lead and adjusting our practices or are we complaining about the “scar” they are leaving on the lawn we call public education?

I agree that there is much that needs to be changed about the contemporary classroom.  I agree that we have to pay more attention to our students’ actual needs, as opposed to our perception of their needs, but “desire” and “need” are not the same thing.  Disney World is about desire, not need.  The classroom should be about need.

Which is not to say that desire has no role to play, but meeting our students’ needs can mean thwarting their desires.  Many of my students want school to be as easy and mindless as possible.  They may have good reason for this: they are working forty hours a week, they have emergencies going on at home, they have lived their whole lives in a state of unrelenting stress and confusion and so are too exhausted to meet the demands of the college classroom.  Does this mean that we ask less of them because that is what they desire?

Even good students want to engage in tasks that they enjoy, but they often enjoy these tasks because they are already good at them and will be praised for what they produce.  If I begin the term by asking Anne to write a personal narrative, she is happy, because she likes creative writing and writes good stories.  She then becomes frustrated and resistant when asked to move on to writing an academic essay, because she has difficulty with analysis and finds MLA formatting baffling.  Obviously, she has a lot more to learn when it comes to formal papers – she’s not good at them yet.  The tasks we resist most are often the ones we most need to do.  This is what “learning” entails.

The structure of the classroom needs to change, but it does not need to become Disney World.  One of the most important skills students can learn is to meet difficult tasks bravely, to cheerfully do things they might not do, if left to follow their own desires.  If we’re lucky, they will start to desire challenges, and then they won’t need teachers any more, because they will seek out the difficult and the new.

We all choose the easy path most of the time.  Can we help our students choose paths that are difficult, even frustrating, because their deepest desire is to learn?

Maybe.  There are some clues in an article that has recently been making the rounds: an essay on the importance of learning how to fail.  I will post about this essay on Monday.


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Image by Craig Goodwin


15 thoughts on “The Problem With Desire Paths

  1. Very thought provoking post. This is the first I’ve heard of desire paths. I agree that we can’t give students exactly what they want (mine just want free time to talk with their friends), but we can try to present the information we give them in an appealing way. whatever my students are passionate about (sports, music, origami) I try to infuse that into my lessons to get them in board.*


    1. Amy: I agree that piquing students’ interest is a key to motivating them. At the same time, if they can develop a sense of curiosity, they’ll be interested in a wider variety of things. I’m wondering if there’s something teachers can do to help them be more curious in general, and the NYT article I’ll write about on Monday poses the same question.


  2. Completely agree. This week I coached my kids about progress versus perfection. The spoiler alert was that there were going to be projects, tests, and papers that they weren’t going to do well on. They are successful if they get better.

    This is not going to stop the cavalcade of “What can I do to get an A?” pleas, but I’m priming the pump as best I can.

    The ‘unschooling’ movement sound most like desire paths, but I don’t know enough about it it say definitively.


  3. OKP: I had a similar experience with my students this past week, and I’ll explore that in Monday’s post as well. The upshot was my telling them, “If you fail this essay, the world will not end. If you don’t even try, then you’ll learn nothing.” Often, we don’t “desire” to do something because we don’t “desire” to fail. If we could see failure as a learning process, we’d be more likely to enjoy attempting hard things.


  4. Thanks for pushing my thinking back toward Desire Paths. I wrote that post some time ago, so it was great to revisit some of my earliest writing.

    I truthfully don’t think you and I are far away in our thinking. I do believe that we (educators) need to find ways for kids to explore passions (especially beyond the walls of the traditional classroom setting), but I also know that we have a responsibility to develop well-rounded individuals, thus we need to demand students study a diverse curriculum.

    Having said that, I think the questions around the paths that students want to make are not curriculum related. More likely, they are questions about how students access the curriculum. We can’t continue to stand and deliver and we can’t continue to pretend that access does not include technologies that that allow any learner to learn from another learner anywhere in the world at any time. I really think that if we are dedicated to preparing our youth to become connected, global citizens (which I think needs to be part of the purpose of school) we need a major shift in policy and thinking.

    Larry Lessig’s recent talk about the government’s lack of a response to to “the entitlement, engagement and sharing brought about by the Internet” really punctuates this point.


    1. Tony:
      “We can’t continue to stand and deliver and we can’t continue to pretend that access does not include technologies that that allow any learner to learn from another learner anywhere in the world at any time. ” Agreed. When it comes to HOW students learn, we have to move away from telling them how to learn, and instead we need to observe how they actually do it, and then try to optimize that learning. I’m not sure if I’d link this with “desire” – and if I did, I’d point out the problems with it, like the fact that the students who can suppress their desire to check their text messages every five seconds will actually learn more. However, I’m totally on board with the idea that education needs to reflect students’ experience of the world outside the school walls. Thank you for responding! I’ve been thinking about your post for weeks.


  5. All too often our students have been socialized to do the easy. “Who is easiest?” they ask each other. “Which class can I make an A in?”

    Some of them don’t actually have a desire to learn and I am not sure how to catch and connect with those students.

    However, the other students, the ones who do want to learn but don’t know that taking the easiest path isn’t always the way, I do hope we can connect with those students and show them a better path to follow.

    I agree that telling them the end of the world won’t come is a good point.

    Another way, I hope, that helps is to tell the reasons you are assigning a paper or essay or homework. I talked about that (and how it has helped me and hopefully my students) in the post:


    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Dr. Davis. I agree that it’s essential for students to know why they are doing things (although they don’t always buy into my explanations!) It’s always great to hear from you.


  6. In my esperience one has to really love oneself to embark on the path of self improvement and risk working on one’s weaknesses. Most often approval, grades, money… seem to come only when we work where we are strong and seemingly competent. When my love for myself, just as I am — human and unknowing, confused, frightened, hurt… is less than my desire/need for approval etc.risking working where I am weak feels TOO frightening!


  7. I feel the risk we take in working on our weaknesses is BIGGER and goes DEEPER than just a fear of appearing weak or unable. The outside world seems to only have places for the strong and competent. Money, which supplies all of our physical needs as human beings, seems to come only from things we do well. Employers hire those who can do the job and do it well — not those who want to learn. In school we depend on grades to move ahead and get the pieces of paper necessary to apply for the jobs that will give us the money to live… Scholarships are given to those with the best grades, not to those working to improve themselves. Families, friends, co-workers…. all seem to offer support too, for what we do well. Support for working on what we don’t do well, isn’t so apparent… In my experience, one has to REALLY love oneself, in an uncommon way, as well as be REALLY hungry to BE better to risk losing these obvious outside supports and trust LIFE to support somehow anyway with a place in which to grow, live and learn — which as far as I know is done best working where I’m weak not where I’m strong… However, I feel too, the world is best organized as it is. The path to self-improvement isn’t meant to be easy!


  8. This is a really good piece, and it’s actually on a subject that I’m getting pretty passionate about lately. I hear a lot of teachers saying that learning should be fun. Of course it should be, if it’s possible. However, as you pointed out, actually learning something that you’re not especially good at can be a grueling task, and isn’t always fun. It should not, however, be avoided just because it isn’t fun.

    Secondly, I think it really depends on your learners if they’re able to cut their own paths, so to say. The 11-14 year olds I work with lack the insight and almost never choose what will be good for them in the long run, often opting for the ‘quick fix’. So, as a teacher, I think it is my job to sometimes point them in another direction, or throw up a road blockage.


    1. bvulcanius: A roommate of mine used to often quote his grandfather, who was convinced that Sesame Street had ruined children by convincing them that learning always had to be fun. I have no beef with SS, but I do think that the most successful people are often those who are willing to do learning tasks that are hard and unpleasant as well.


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