Passion-Based Learning | Edutopia
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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!


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

Heidi A. Olinger's picture
Heidi A. Olinger
Educator, Social Entrepreneur + Founder of Pretty Brainy, Inc.

I love that you have re-shaped PBL into passion-based learning. From this piece I realized I have been providing students a learning experience made up of all of the above: project-based, inquiry-based, problem-based, design-based and collaborative. My goal has been to engage young people in learning activities that apply in the real world beyond the traditional classroom and to make it meaningful from their perspective, not my duty. Thank you for a rich, inspiring piece.

Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist

Thanks for your reply. In this blog, I am just reminding readers of what they already know and do. I was just struck that all these different pedagogies could be boiled down to the notion of instilling passion. Passion is why most of us got into this game; our job now is to pay it forward and pour passion into our students. Thanks again.

Kimberly Corrigan's picture
Kimberly Corrigan
Director of Partnerships at nonprofit Facing The Future

Your science evangelizing about connecting students and teachers to their passions is welcome indeed! Our nonprofit strives to support teachers and students in exploring and applying knowledge and skills to global sustainability challenges. In this climate of blaming rather than respecting and assisting teachers, it's wonderful to put teachers in their true place -- the inspirers and nurturers of our children's hearts and minds. Thank you!

Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist

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!)

Deborah Owen's picture
Deborah Owen
High School Library Teacher in Massachusetts

I really like your comment about how teachers need to have a beginner's mind, thinking about how a topic looks to someone who does not already know something about it. Great reminder!

I also like that remind your readers how important it is to be passionate about your subject. Cool Cat Teacher just posted a piece about how disengaged teachers destroy student engagement, for obvious reasons. Perhaps I am naive, but I would hope that 99% of the teachers students meet do NOT fall into that category of being disengaged. I would think that someone becomes a teacher because they LOVE what they do and they can't wait to share how cool it is with other people, in this case, students!

Personally, I have to go on the assumption that teachers ARE passionate about their subject. Assuming this is the case, I would argue that inquiry learning really is one of the best ways to help students move beyond simple, in-the-moment engagement, and into intrinsic motivation. The inquiry learning model can easily include these other models you discuss - problem-based (the inquiry question is intended to solve or answer a problem), or project-based (why not have students work with a real-world problem and ask important questions about it?). In fact, I have written about several of these topics already in my new blog. If you and your readers would check it out, I would welcome the opportunity to continue learning about these topics together:

Betsye Sargent's picture
Betsye Sargent
Founder, head, and PK-3 teacher at he Phoenix School in Salem, MA

I was thinking today during #satchat whether or not it wasn't possible for creative, innovative teachers (there are some left, aren't there?)to weave the common core requirements into a passion-based approach to learning? I'm on the same page as Heidi, making learning all of the above. Engaged kids learn and remember best when curriculum can also be individualized and they have some choice. Passion-based learning allows for this beautifully. A lot of work, but might be a way through the educational morass we seem to be in right now.

Ainissa Ramirez's picture
Ainissa Ramirez
Science Evangelist

I agree that passion is the candle that we need at this critical time when we are mired in this morass. We only need a few candles to squelch the darkness.

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