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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Passion-Based Learning: An Interview with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

When we talk about teaching, we are never just talking about a profession, but a passion. Unfortunately, while dodging the bullets of criticism and shielding ourselves behind the mediocrity of the standardization movement, we have found our eagerness to teach being chipped away. Educator Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach challenges us to rediscover our own passion for teaching by helping our students become passionate seekers of knowledge and understanding.

Credit: Heather Wolpert-Gawron (left) and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

Nussbaum-Beach first pioneered her ideas about passion-based learning early on, creating a small interest-based school in Georgia. Since then she's been everything from a classroom teacher to a technology leader, and has recently joined forces with Will Richardson to begin Powerful Learning Practice, LLC, a company designed to help teachers weave instructional technology into their everyday teaching practice and awaken the passion for learning in themselves and their students.

In The Connected Educator, a book from Solution Tree due out this fall, Sheryl talks about the power of being a Do-It-Yourself teacher as a means to model independent learning for your students.

I sat down (virtually) with Sheryl and had the chance to ask her some questions about her theories of learning and teaching not just with enthusiasm, but with passion:

Heather: You talk a lot about a DIY kind of teaching where a teacher has to make lessons applicable to those students in front of her. Am I getting this right?

Sheryl: Yep, and the key to making it applicable is student choice. Passion-based learning is as diverse as the learners in the room. It's about letting them pick things they're passionate about, finding subjects where their strengths lie, and shaping their own learning systems. We need to think of curriculum not as learning things in the order a teacher says, but as learning things when students need to learn them.

For instance, kids shouldn't learn about soil ecosystems because it's in Chapter 7 of the science book. They should learn about it because they're planning a community garden so they can take vegetables to the local food bank. They're doing something they're passionate about, and they're eager to understand the science that makes a garden successful.

Heather: So is it the emotion, the need as you say, to create, that makes passion-based learning different than project-based learning?

While I do believe that each of us has a creative side and a need to express our learning through artistic means, I do not know if I feel that it is that drive that draws the distinction between passion-based learning and project-based. Rather, I think it has more to do with motivation and ownership. For the students it is being able to put some of themselves into a project that they have interest in and owning the design and direction of how they will prove mastery of the objectives that makes it passion-based learning.

Teachers can do project-based learning and still be in total control of process, design, and outcomes. And while that is interesting and produces great engagement because the tasks and the assessments are more authentic, I do not know if that always equates to true passion on the part of the student.

Credit: Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather: So what do we as teachers need to "unlearn," as you say in your book, to find our way to passion-teaching?

If we're going to keep making sense of an ever-shifting world, we need to unlearn the idea that learning occurs only in school. We need to unlearn that our own learning and our students' learning is limited by time and space. We need to unlearn that learning is an individual pursuit. We need to unlearn that we have to be the experts in our classrooms. We need to unlearn that leading is only for the leaders in the front office.

Credit: Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

That means we have to really help many teachers learn how to unlearn. I mean, not everyone is comfortable with letting go of the old ways. Many well-intentioned teachers keep those reins very tight. How do we as a profession unlearn what many in society still claim is the way towards student achievement?

Teachers have got to become connected learners themselves, someone aware of their digital footprint and networked with other adult learners online. After all, education is not only about students, but also about how a teacher continually provides new learning for himself or herself as well.

It's a three-pronged approach to professional development. Teachers who participate in what I've coined as Connected Learning Communities (CLCs) experience connectedness in at least three ways:

1. Locally -- through your Professional Learning Community within your school or district -- face-to-face connections where you and your colleagues have messy, hard conversations around what works and what doesn't.
2. Globally -- through your Community of Practice -- online connections with educators from around the world who make a commitment to each other to improve overtime through sharing, finding solutions and co-creating innovations together.
3. Globally -- through your Personal Learning Network -- individual connections to resources and people that inform your learning around many topics, not just education, and result in you having new ideas to bring back to your community.

So often educators want to return from a PD experience and immediately apply everything they learned with their students, when in fact, I would say, think deeply about the relationship between content, pedagogy, and technology before you change your teaching. Otherwise the focus will be in the wrong place, on the technology rather than the learning.

Heather: Hold the phone. Are you saying that although you are an advocate of educational technology, that technology use in itself is not the key?

Absolutely. I do not believe that technology is the answer -- and so then we go in search of a question. I believe that technology, when integrated effectively in a learning activity, can deepen the knowledge and understanding of the student. But I also believe that the technology needs to be chosen because it is well suited to help deepen learning. Learning is the key. Technology should always serve learning, not the other way around. I talk about this a lot in my own blog.

Heather: Many technology folks love their tech tools, but don't necessarily love content or the excitement of the teaching act. On the other hand, you are speaking like a person who loves teachers most of all.

You're on to me, Heather. They are my passion. And when I can help teachers ignite a passion for learning in students that's so intense it will last a lifetime -- well, that's the most satisfying thing imaginable.

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's picture

Thiago,

I agree, but I think that we trained them to be passive receivers of information and we can untrain them. Sort of like we as their teachers have to be untrained or unlearn certain things about how we have always "done" school.

Thanks for your comment. I look forward to reading your ideas as well.

Marsha Ratzel's picture
Marsha Ratzel
Middle school math and science teacher from Leawood, Kansas

I think we need to batten down the hatches because like minds will stir up all sorts of amazing results out there in California. But hey...it sounds like new ideas might be just what the state needs!!! as well as everywhere these days.

Passion based learning is definitely the bomb...as my kids would say.

Here's what I wonder. I'm all for this, no doubts. How do I transition from what I have in place and the responsibilities I bear in my job to a system where I encourage this kind of learning? Do I think of it as something we might do as "enrichment" devoting a chunk of each week for kids to what-ever passion they might have? I've done something similar to that in my math classes where on Fridays they explored ideas that they were interested in learning about....except I don't think it fits the definition because I still required the exploration to be about math. believe me, we got way out there and pretty crazy topic-wise and I had to literally run to catch up...but it was fun. Definite lots of learning alongside the kids as well as the kids teaching me.

I was able to do something like that because we were able to "cover" the requirements in a shorter period of time and I used the other time for these explorations.

I also know that I was extremely stretched because with 32 kids that all went in different directions, I had little ability to help out in the ways that I was needed. Particularly at the beginning of the year when they had little experience in managing their own learning. They needed "me" they thought for everything....it was only with time they figured out I was pretty much OK but they were actually capable of doing everything once they learned how to use the library system, how to do an advanced search, how to refine searches, and some of those basic things.

It will require teachers to realize they will have to teach a whole different set of skills to support students in learning this way, I think. And THAT will be illuminating!!!!

Thanks for the interview and this article. A real home run!

marsha

Greg Reiva's picture
Greg Reiva
High School Science Teacher

For the past 16 years at Streamwood High School in Streamwood Illinois I have worked relentlessly trying to bring real learning in science to the high school classroom. Project-based science has been the avenue that I have pursued in my effort to ignite STUDENT MOTIVATION TO LEARN!
The idea of student passion has always been a key element to my curriculum designing process as I try to forge an effective science project to meet the educational standards and to make the learning process real for my students.

Making it real is the hallmark to making creating a passionate experience for the students. Whenever I come up with new ideas to help in redesigning the science curriculum for my students I am keenly aware of the need to foster a love for learning through passionate involvement by my students. It is tricky business to bring this into existence with the confines of a classroom with limited resources and under the watchful eye of district and state standards, but it is the type of challenge that most successful teachers were born to do!
I applaud your effort to "make it happen" in classroom and to help fuel the fire to bring great learning experience into our science classroom across America.

Barry Kort's picture
Barry Kort
Volunteer Science Educator at the Boston Museum of Science

Every day, everybody is ready to learn something.

What are you ready to learn right now?

Let's learn that.

Cognition, Affect, and Learning

Greg Reiva's picture
Greg Reiva
High School Science Teacher

Hi Marsha, Sheryl and All Other Science Educators!

I am a high school science teacher and I have worked on developing science projects for many years trying to ignite student interest. More recently, I have utilized engineering based projects to get students to think and do the big "What if..." type of exploration and discovery in science class.

I read the blog by Sheryl and Marsha's comments to the blog on passion-based learning. I wanted to forward you this information regarding a great and exciting set of science projects available to teachers nation-wide and it is free if you develop a partnership with local engineers or scientists. The projects are under the umbrella program called A World in Motion. It is a program supporte by SAE International which is a professional engineering association supported by some of the largest engineering corporation in America.
The website is listed here:

http://www.awim.org/

Let me know if you need any asistance or more information. I know many of the key administrative people that work for this organization and I could help you get something like this started in your school.

I work at Streamwood High School in Streamwood Illinois for the past 16 years teaching physical science, physics and chemistry. I also taught Algebra for 3 years.

Please let me know how this works out for you.

Greg Reiva

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's picture

[quote]
What are you ready to learn right now?

Let's learn that.

Cognition, Affect, and Learning[/quote]

This will be my new mantra! Thanks Barry

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's picture

Marsha said, [quote]
Here's what I wonder. I'm all for this, no doubts. How do I transition from what I have in place and the responsibilities I bear in my job to a system where I encourage this kind of learning? Do I think of it as something we might do as "enrichment" devoting a chunk of each week for kids to what-ever passion they might have? I've done something similar to that in my math classes where on Fridays they explored ideas that they were interested in learning about....except I don't think it fits the definition because I still required the exploration to be about math. believe me, we got way out there and pretty crazy topic-wise and I had to literally run to catch up...but it was fun. Definite lots of learning alongside the kids as well as the kids teaching me.

I was able to do something like that because we were able to "cover" the requirements in a shorter period of time and I used the other time for these explorations.

[/quote]

The big bucket can be math and it still be passion-based. What you do is provide everyone with rich ingredients around math and encourage your students to try certain kinds of problems, equations and puzzles and where their interests or passions start to reveal themselves you help your students create a self directed project or learning journey.

You set the table with all these wonderful math dishes and they taste and decide from which they will have more. You provide tantalizing ingredients and they create new recipes. Make sense?

This is not enrichment though-- this is the real deal. You still use all the same ingredients (your state curriculum) you just offer the objectives up and have the kids show you how they will prove mastery.

Marsha Ratzel's picture
Marsha Ratzel
Middle school math and science teacher from Leawood, Kansas

I didn't know that I was going to fall in love with buckets today. But I am. What you're describing Sheryl is what I do. I used the constraints of my content area and tried to keep it wrangled within the confines of the curriculum that I was assigned (more or less) to cover during that year.

Now that I "get it", I agree that it's not only do-able. It's do-able within the existing structures/constraints the status quo. That is unless you have the requirement to all be on the same page, the same day doing the same thing. It's where we (being teachers) can take back the love of learning that we used to be able to impart to our students and start re-building their love for school. I think the damage that has been done can be repaired because most students are curious about something....and from that kernel of curiosity, we can earn their trust and respect....and engage their intellect...and they'll fall in love with school and learning again.

Thanks for the clarification. And again...I think you and Heather did a great job on this article and I look for more inspirations from you all.

marsha

Russell Mercer's picture
Russell Mercer
substitute teacher, GED teacher

My site on ezfolk ... http://ezfolk.com/audio/bands/24/

Contains a version of the song ... "Follow the River"

Follow The River by Jenkins and Mercer Copyright 1999

When you come down to the crossroads,
And you don't know which way to go,
Listen to the words in your heart,
Listen to the song of your soul,
Follow the River,
Follow the River,
Follow the River, and the River will take you home.

(When you're lost in the land of the lost,
And you don't feel that you have choice,
When you spend every hour alone,
And you don't see a way to go on.) Part of the original lyrics

Lay down your burden of anger,
Give up your greed and scorn,
Give others the gift you've been given
And you'll reap what you have sown.

Break:

Reach out with a joyful noise,
Lift up your voice in our song,
Treat others as you would be treated,
And you'll never walk that dark road alone.
Follow the River,
Follow the River,
Follow the River, and the River will take you home.
Guarantee, the River will take you home.

The story

A few years ago I was teaching night GED classes at the Farmington Correctional Center. I had a fairly large class, about seventeen students at the time. Mr. Jenkins was one of my students. He was a young black man about twenty six years old convicted of aggravated assault. He had recently become a born again Christian. He had a number of problems with his studies. He could perform any task after explanation, but had long term memory problems. His short term memory seemed to be all right, but after a few days he would begin to loose what he had studied. This was a real problem given the program and the final test that each student must eventually take. I worked with him to develop ways to increase and assist his long term memory. One of these was rhyme, which has been used since the beginning of written language to maintain memory, rhyme and rhythm begin before Homer. We used these tools in every part of his studies, "9 times 9, LET'S HAVE SOME FUN, is 81". We had rhymes for the entire multiplication table. Mr. Jenkins made progress. It was slow but he was retaining what he was studying through the use of our tools and constant review. I wrote "Follow the River" during his study of poetry. I wanted him to help me in the writing of it, but when I gave him each verse he would not make any changes to it. He said the words were too good to change. He only made one addition to entire poem, the "Guarantee" at the end. I gave him a copy of the words, and he took them to a musician that he knew from church. The musician took it to others and it became a song that was performed at their church services. I never had the opportunity to hear it preformed because I could not attend their services. He and some of the other students did sing it for me in class.

At one point Mr. Jenkins got into a fight while he was at his day job in the mess hall and was put into solitary confinement for about a week. When he returned to class I had to move him from where he had been sitting to a new location. I had new students, and one of the individuals he had gotten into trouble with in the mess hall was to close too his old location. His new seat was directly under a large florescent light directly in front of my desk. It was then that I noticed a line on his forehead directly over his left eye. It puzzled me and I began to suspect something. I ask him about it, and at first he was reluctant to tell me anything. I knew that he had been raised by his grandmother. He had mentioned this to me in our conversations. Finally, after my continued questioning, he told me that when he was three years old his mother had stabbed him in the head with a pair of scissors. At break time that evening I put in a request for all his records, including his medical records. There was no mention of this injury in his records, particularly his medical records. I searched further and came up with nothing from the time he had been arrested. It all fit, his symptoms: memory loss and anger control, the nature and location of the wound. I put together a rather large document detailing all this information and sent it to his case worker. The long term result was Mr. Jenkins transfer from the standard prison facility to the special psychiatric facility located within Farmington Correctional, where he could receive treatment for his disability. He continued to come to GED classes, insisting that I remain his instructor. Of course the powers that be, the system, did not like my interference especially in pointing out their mistake.

When the cutbacks in funding for the GED and Vocational programs occurred in the Missouri prison system I was one of the first to be let go. About eight months after I left the program I received a special invitation to the graduation of students who had taken and passed the GED exam. I went wishing to see which of my students had obtained a High School education. It was a very strange experience. The families of inmates and the teaching staff comprised most of the audience. After the cap and gown, the inmates were allowed to shake hands with everyone. Mr. Jenkins was the first to shake my hand. He smiled at me and said, "Follow the river, Mr. Mercer, follow the river." My eyes started to get a little watery, and that was not the end of it. Many students shook my hand, some from my class, some that I did not even know. Most of them said the same thing, "Follow the river."

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