Guidelines of Passion-Based Learning

I was honoured recently to speak at a Future of Education talk that addressed the ways to bring about passion-based learning in schools, along with experts and collegues Amy Sandvold, Lisa Nielsen, and George Couros, mediated by Steve Hargadon. Here are some of the main points from the talk, along with some additional thoughts from John Seely Brown, co-author ofA New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Changeand educator Jackie Gerstein.

  1. REACH OUT TO THE DISENFRANCHISED. We say that we want creative, passion-driven students, yet we reward the opposite. Standards-based education stifles engagement and passion in students. While drop-outs are considered to be lazy and unmotivated, many are simply not interested because they don’t understand the relevance of what they’re being taught. We’re rewarding students who are best at obedience, memorization, regurgitation, and compliance. And those who do succeed in school often don’t know what to do when they get out. We need to prepare kids to be successful in the real world, not just while in school.
  2. SHOW RELEVANCE TO LIFE OUTSIDE SCHOOL. Passion is the narrative of mattering. It’s that simple and that difficult.  Everyone has a deep rooted drive to know that they matter to others and that what they’re doing matters. When you’re doing work that matters, with people who matter, you’re willing to suffer and study more. Passion-based learning is not about matching students with topics that interest them, it’s about presenting subjects to students in a way that’s relevant. People gain empowerment when they’re doing work that matters and is respected.  Angela Maiers suggests that a class essay rubric may seem irrelevant for some, and that having students surf the web to identify writing standards that are “worthy of the world” may engage them to take ownership of their writing.
  3. INDOCTRINATE PASSION INTO THE SYSTEM. We must switch from a control narrative in the classroom to a passion narrative. While our education system allows continuity between grade levels, provides a streamlined performance metric, and “teacher-proofs” schools, assessment-based education can quell the creative process in teachers.  Lisa Nielsen writes in her Innovative Educator blog: “Are we going to lose another excellent, passion-driven teacher to a compulsory system of education that as Seth Godin so aptly expresses, ‘only values compliance not initiative, because, of course, that’s what’s easiest to measure.’” School mandates paralyze educators from taking a close look at their passion for learning.  School administrators should support teachers and empower them to be creative. Teachers and leadership, as exemplified by those from Aurora High School in Ohio, can read books like Passion-Driven Classrooms (written by panelists Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold) to discover ways to use more passion in their classrooms.The Island School is an example of a public-financed school in New York City that’s implemented a schoolwide enrichment model focusing on talent development and nurturing multiple intelligences.
  4. TRY USING THE SCHOOLWIDE ENRICHMENT MODEL. Passion-based learning is about finding a “hero,” learning what makes him/her successful, and acquiring the practices and the norms of established practitioners in that field.  The Schoolwide Enrichment Model identifies student strengths, nurtures skills, and creates authentic opportunities for students to utilize these skills not just as students, but as practicing professionals providing experiences and opportunities to work and learn with others in the fields in which they are interested. If a student takes interest in the culinary arts, watching the 60 Minutes interview of Jose Andres, following up on studies of molecular gastronomy, volunteering at a local soup kitchen and exchanging recipes with a network of cooks is far more enriching than simply taking a cooking class. Jackie Gerstein said: “I realized that it becomes much more than learning about the culinary arts.  It becomes a way of being in the world, the dispositions that contributes to success as a culinary artist.”
  5. DIGITAL MEDIA IS KEY. Students can read and view media about their heroes and possibly even connect directly with them. John Seely Brown, a notable passion-based proponent and keynote at the New Media Consortium this past summer, says that passion involves an extreme performance with a deep questioning disposition. Without digital media, this quest is not possible in formal education.
  6. TAP INTO THE WISDOM OF YOUR TRUSTED PEERS. Social media and Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) are necessary. Teachers need to publish their innovative work and share it with their personal learning networks. It’s also important for teachers to help students get connected to PLNs via social media.
  7. BECOME A DIGITAL CITIZENS. If for no other reason, then to be able to guide students. Students need to be shown what’s appropriate and instructive with social media in and out of the classroom. Schools’ banning of social media sites impedes this process. Having teachers and students learn side-by-side can provide great opportunities for building respect and openness.
  8. PASSION IS INFECTIOUS. Being around passionate people is the best way to become passionate. A passion-driven teacher is a model for her students. Teachers must be able to lead in the areas that they’re passionate about (whether this be in the classroom or after school). They must demonstrate that they have lives outside of school and that they are well-balanced people. Being transparent with students and building relationships with them beyond the classroom can help drive learning – students work harder with people who matter to them. The Science Leadership Academy, for example, uses Facebook as a means of connecting students and teachers to each others’ interests. Students and teachers even do things together outside of the classroom.
  9. CONNECT WITH PARENTS. Building relationships between parents and schools is crucial. George Couros says that having a pre-conference at the beginning of the school year with parents allows teachers and administrators to listen to parents talk about their kids and gives parents a chance to tell the school what their competencies are and where their expertise lies. Teachers can then create “resident expert” walls. By identifying strengths and talents of parents, parents gain a sense of recognition and human value – they feel engaged. This leads to opportunities for parents to teach topics that they love within the school.
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  • sue levine

    bknittle , I know exactly where you are coming from. Inside the classroom they wanted material covered a certain way at a certain time of day at a specific pace etc etc and it is indeed paralyzing and demoralizing. I took my show to the media center but as  teacher-librarian, I struggle b/c the teachers and are afraid to have their students spend time working with me due to then missing “what they are supposed to be covering.” 
    In order to succeed in the classroom, the teacher needs to believe in herself and her students and do what they think is best for the students…at least then, the kids get the best instruction possible. BUT…if they are going to keep asking teachers to teach math at 10:40 am for example and the teacher has a great language arts activity going, then unfortunately, that teacher most likely will get “written up” if “caught” not teaching math at the correct time. The administrators feel that they have to hold teachers accountable to a schedule so that if the kids fail the test at the end, they can blame the teacher for not teaching the material…

    If you want to go back to the classroom, I think it can work out great with all of your tech integration ideas and projects as long as you have the support of the administration and they trust and believe in you, so if you are not doing “what everyone else is doing” you will “not get in trouble.” I did a lot of dynamic stuff with a first grade class but at the end of the day, we were being judged on the state test so I still had to train little 6 year olds how to sit still and take a test and I felt I had the job of “breaking them” since that was their first year of standardized test taking. I don’t know why I choose to use the term “breaking them” but it just felt like that’s what I was doing. 

    On a final note, I have found in the schools I have worked in that non compliant teachers who “stuck to their guns” and provided a rationale as to why they were not going along with the mandated way of teaching did “get away with it” though I am seeing it as harder to get away with now where I currently work as more and more specific benchmark tests are published at the district level on specific curriculum (ie the basal reader and its supporting materials). No longer can a teacher choose to deliver their reading instruction in a different way now that the district is sending those tests!

    Good luck!

  • Lisa

    Hello Angela, my friend,
    From teacher to principal to ed consultant, I have never stopped being passionate about what I care about, and how I feel about what our children need to be able to learn to be passionate in their own lives. This includes advocating for their rights, when no one else would, supporting their parents in the fight and sometimes, paying a price for it. I’m not regretful. As I was reminded this past Sunday by an amazing Pastor who shared this message: Leaders say what needs to be said. This is what I did. Sometimes unpopular, always hopeful to make a difference. 
    Many of my former colleagues in So Cal who are in admin positions, continue to “plug” away. They keep their heads down,care only about advancement and play it safe by staying in the box. They are what we call “Position Leaders” sorely lacking passion vs. a true “Servant Leader”, which is what I always told my school community that I was and still seek to practice as a consultant. In my work, as I seek to focus on passion-based learning, I believe a missing piece above is Mentoring. I sought to mentor others as a teacher, mentored and supported over 100 “new teachers” and veterans as a principal, and continue to do so, now as a consultant. If we are to be true, passion-based educators, we must be servant leaders at every level, and share our gifts and talents with those seeking to get started, or those experienced wanting to change course for a better experience. My passion to mentor and support new teachers is what I’m most excited about now. I’m inspired by my colleagues like you, Angela, and others on SM platforms who share my passion to be servant leaders.
    Best to you,

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