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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

There is lots of talk about the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) pipeline and all of its leaks. My personal mission is to fill the STEM pipeline with so many children that it bursts. To do this, STEM must be taught in an inspiring way. To keep children engaged, we need to bring passion for learning back into the classroom.

Passion is hot. It is a force that sells movies and margarine and everything in between. It is a force the can move mountains, inspire art and make the weak strong. We need to bring passion back into learning, in teaching and all around. Passion motivates. It makes a way out of no way. It allows students to overcome hardships to achieve a goal that is meaningful to them.

When writing my recent book for TED, Save Our Science, I learned about the alphabet soup of instructional strategies out there, with the common theme of enticing and engaging learning. Let's name a few of these pedagogies: there is inquiry-based, project-based, design-based and problem-based learning, for example. Each of these methods has a central theme buried under all that jargon. If we were to compare the learning process to fishing, we want to draw students in (with the worm) and keep them engaged (with the hook). These pedagogies provide the motivation and the momentum using different approaches. You can hook a student's attention if they get their hands dirty (inquiry-based learning); have learning interactions with other students (project- and problem-based learning); or need to perform a specific task (problem- and design-based learning). All these methods are ways -- with their direct discovery, problem-solving, hands-on learning and collaborative methods -- used to keep the embers of passion for learning alive. A love of learning is a key skill for the 21st century. (See Figure 1)

The Power of Passion

There are two ways to get a child passionate about something:

  1. Find out what each child is innately passionate about.
  2. Be an instructor that exudes passion for the topic, and infect your students with that excitement.

Only a few of us have benefited from the first option, but all of us can benefit from the second one. That is the power of passion.

Figure 1. Passion for learning is the key pedagogy to prepare for 21st century challenges.

Credit: Ainissa Ramirez

I've witnessed this in my own journey. I met a graduate student working in a very esoteric (read: boring) scientific field that uses magnetism to determine the properties of atoms. It was a foreign technique that was equivalent to watching paint dry, but she gave an enthusiastic presentation. I later asked her how she got involved with this topic. She replied that she had a professor who loved this field, and his passion was contagious. His legacy was a group of students who loved this topic, too. That is the power of passion; it can make what was once dull now desirable.

Now, we must be careful when we talk about passion and making topics interesting. Lots of instructors and teachers feel that they are passionate about what they teach. They will launch into a lesson from the deep end of the pool. Too often professors, teachers and instructors who have been teaching a subject for some time cannot engage a beginner, because they have forgotten how life was before knowing what they know. In teaching, you must have a beginner's mind. And you must ask, "How does this look to someone if they are seeing this for the first time?" Help your students into the shallow end of the pool and bring them to the deeper end. Teach with passion and with patience.

Vulnerability and the Inner Geek

Show students why you love the topic. Be vulnerable and show them the human side of knowing this new thing. To teach well, teachers must go back to the stage of vulnerability and put themselves in the shoes of a student who is learning the material for the first time. Students respond to vulnerability. It shows that you are "with them."

Now, I must be clear: vulnerability does not mean a loss of power. We must decouple that in our minds -- being vulnerable can be a source of power. (I would suggest you read the work of Brené Brown for proof). We are all from an age where knowing is related to our self-worth. No one can know everything! So we've got to have a new posture with knowledge, especially in this age where the rate of information creation is exponential. In this age of Google, the human element still has a market on engagement; there isn't an algorithm for passion (yet).

Be a passion-based teacher. Take on a new learning posture with your students by presenting a story behind the topic you are teaching, or by showing its beauty, or by delighting in the topic. Get in touch with your inner geek. When you do that, you give students permission to do the same. Remember that the word pedagogy comes from the Greek root, which means "to lead the child."

Everyone is a geek for something; everyone has passion for something. Make that something learning. Infect your students with passion, and they'll never be able to contain it again. Release your passion!

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Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

LaRae McRae's picture

Thank you Ainissa for this blog post. It was truly inspirational. In education today it is easy to forget about the passion in order to engage our students. I agree that educators need to have a "beginners mind" to engage our students in the learning process!

Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger 2014

I am happy to know my words were meaningful. Thanks for reaching out.

Sally Nold's picture
Sally Nold
High School Assitant Principal/Virtual School Director

Bring Passion back to the classroom!
Thank you for this intentional description of how to engage students in loving to learn, particularly focusing on the innate curiosity children have about the world around us. Isn't this a perfect opporutnity for students to practice skills with online tools, helping to free up time for a teacher to share personal passion with students? Making emotional connections is a requirement to reach deep learning.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music
Blogger 2014

I rarely warm up my voice before helping students with their own voices. I have observed that students learn much more from watching me fudge, then fix, any tricky passage that needs to be smoothed out vocally. Whether it be singing, chemistry or cooking, allowing info to be shared more personally with one's students seems, at least to me, a lot more productive and sincere approach than just "presenting" in a cool manner.

PS. I posted this as a passionate geek..as in...NO ONE likes to squak when they sing. That's GEEK101. That's vulnerability in spades. Sometimes when a singing coach doesn't warm herself up, she does end up squaking loudly. NOT cool. Very geeky. But that's okay. I'm so passionate about teaching kids to sing, I'll play the geek card. Helps them learn. Keeps me humble :-)

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

Thanks for this great post, Ainissa! Passion is important in every aspect of life, and works best when you're sharing it with others. I became a music teacher because my music teacher shared her passion with me. It was infectious. Now, as an entrepreneur, I try and instill passion for building things in the students I work with. I want them to feel like they can dream something, and make it. I try and teach them that with passion and motivation, they can do anything they want. Do you think this is too ideal? Or is passion-based teaching helping our students have the confidence to find their own passions?

Susan's picture

I couldn't agree more Ainissa. I have been incorporating an environmental science program (10,000 Islands Dolphin Projects Environmental Studies Program) within my reading support classes for the past three years and have found that my enthusiasm and passion for the topics are encouraging to my students. Makes the goal of teaching students to read for a purpose so much more meaningful and purposeful. The students and I have so much fun waiting to see what new things we will learn from our Livestream events, while incorporating fiction and non-fiction books to extend our learning ! We also extend our learning by working in the STEAM room to work on creative projects.

Patricia Petrino's picture
Patricia Petrino
Kindergarten Teacher

Thank you, Ainissa, for a great article. Sometimes I need to remind myself of why I teach...it is truly because I have a passion for learning. I want to inspire my students with that same passion, especially for reading. I am alarmed by the amount of time my young students spend on screen time (video games, TV, and even computer time.) It seems so hard at times to instill that love for reading independently for the sheer joy of it, even though my students love to listen to both fiction and nonfiction books read aloud in class. I don't have an answer, except to keep modeling it in class, and to encourage parents to read with their children at home. Do you have any thoughts on developing a love for reading?

marie's picture
marie
Gate teacher 4-6

Thank you for the much needed reminder about how important it is for teachers to have a love of the learning process and to share this passion with the students.

May's picture

Your article really resonated with me as I've held this belief for a long, long time. When teachers teach what they are passionate about, their students love learning. For this reason, I always added 3 favorite topics to grade level standards when I taught second grade: a study of birds so that my students would appreciate the avian wildlife that surrounded them; a study of live spiders ( I'm an arachnophile); and chess.

stephanie karabaic's picture
stephanie karabaic
Reading and Writing Specialist-Middle School

It's so funny that this article is about passions and learning. This year just started and the first thing I had my students do was make a list of the things they love in life and are passionate about and they could be considered an 'expert'in. They listed things and then handed them in. This passionate connection they identified will be the focal point for a PBL assignment since they already have knowledge about it and will explore and report back to our group in various ways more about their topic in the future. It's a great starting point for a PBL project integrating research skills, writing, reading, technology...and lots more...when we are passionate about a topic we want to learn more and delve deeper into it and that is the starting point for this year with my students.

Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist
Blogger 2014

Thank you for your comments. I read that one of the things that got Finland to be so successful is that they empowered teachers to make some key decisions. After the US gets passed the finger-pointing and the paralysis of analysis, we should let teachers get back to the work of inspiring young minds. Until then, I hope this blog stoked the flame a bit for some in this time of darkness. Thanks again. (And thanks for the work you do!)

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