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