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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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