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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.

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Thiago Fernandes's picture

This is a great article. Innovative not only for teachers but for students. It's very sad that in our current mode of Education, students might actually oppose this sort of schooling, because they're used to being lazy and passive. But I do believe that it is what's in their best interest and better suited to help them in the personal journey of discovery that leads to becoming an independent, intelligent and passionate individual.

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