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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

Allison Shea's picture
Allison Shea
Kindergarten Teacher at The Denver Green School

Hi all,

So I am struggling differentiating between what Sheryl is describing and the project approach to learning. Many of you spoke of developing projects for your classes, etc... and while project-based learning is wonderful, it is isn't allowing the students to follow their own interests. The project approach takes that process one step further and allows the students to discover what they are interested in and truly develop the project on their own. They are invested in their learning, it is authentic, and the subjects are being weaved into each and every day of learning. This approach has been around for quite some time and is widely used in early childhood learning. There is even a book published by Helm and Katz that outlines how amazing this approach is for children of all ages. My question is, has Sheryl taken an approach that already exists and given it a new name?

Danielle's picture
Danielle
Kindergarten Teacher M.Ed. Curriculum and Instruction

Sheryl, After reading your definition of passion-based learning I am confused about the difference between passion-based and the project approach to curriculum development. Katz and Helm wrote a book in 2000 titled, Young Investigators, Using the Project Approach in the Early Years. In their book they define the project approach as "A project is an in0depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about. The investigation is usually undertaken by a small group of children within a class, a whole class, and occasionally by an individual child. The key feature of a project is that it is a research effort deliberately focused on finding answers to questions about a topic posed with er by the children, the teacher or the teacher working with the children."Using the project approach, teachers use children's interests to guide them through projects that interest them. The children develop the questions and the methods for finding answers to their questions the teacher just helps them organize their thoughts and ideas. How does your method differ from theirs?

Hudson Don's picture
Hudson Don
Prematurely retired high school English teacher because of blindness (legal

The intention behind "learning how to unlearn" is positive. The language is not. What is the point of public education? What is it we want our students to accomplish and master? What is necessary and what is not?
Because the global culture is expanding and complicating itself at inconceivable rates the old idea of teaching for content is impossible. If content is doubling faster than once a year, how is it possible to teach content. If that is so, then what is public education supposed to be?
This is what I expect it to be. First, learn how to learn. Learning is not knowing the answers, learning is finding ways to figure out the answers. And there is not just one way to do that. That insight is precious and must be defended. Almost everything put forward in the name of public education reform, especially NCLB and Race to the Top, is not about diversity, individual differences, or literate behavior. In fact, its about anti-diversity, anti-individual differences, and anti- literate behavior. Let's revisit the question, what is public education? Public education should look like this; public education should be about literate behavior and recognizing that literacy is a process not a skill. That means everyone can learn but not in the exact same ways or exact same time frames. And that is alright! This cannot be forgotten. Public education needs to be about tolerance. Right now, public education is intolerant, it does not tolerate minority cultures, it does not tolerate making mistakes as learning process, it does not tolerate special needs as mainstream learning, it does not tolerate poverty as an impediment to learning, and it does not tolerate democratic process. Current public education does tolerate discrimination, elitism, privilege, and mendacity. Public education should be about communities, identifying, studying and building communities. Public education should be about citizenship, we should be educating our children to be upstanding citizens that vote, voluntarily comply with laws and rules, oppose injustice, promote loyalty, remain openminded and accepting towards differences, how to defend the rights of the weak and the small, to stand up to and fight against tyranny, and despotism especially at home, and above all prize literacy above all else.
Learning how to "unlearn" is a waste of time, money and energy and ultimately impossible to do.. if public education was about learning in the first place then" unlearning" would not be necessary. To acknowledge that public education needs to "unlearn" much of what it has learned, is tacit admission that public education is not what it claims to be and has not been for a long time. The greatest obstacle to learning how to learn is the political and economic control of education. Educators are not in charge of education. In medicine, doctors and nurses are losing control of medical care and treatments to insurance companies; doctors are not determining care and treatment, insurance adjustors are. Education gave up control of itself a long time ago in favor of wages, benefits, and job security. Now in 18 states control of wages, benefits, and job security is all but gone. Not many educators today want to consider this reality, no matter how progressive, forward thinking educators are they cannot make changes because they have no power and now they have no protection.
Edutopia has said many times, "we want to hear about what you can do, not what you can't do." I think that's a terribly unfair expectation. What is Edutopia doing to protect the teachers who embark on PBL and get fired because they altered the curriculum?
I don't think the question to ask is how do we "unlearn" what we've learned? The question we need to ask is, how do we protect the right to learn how to learn for all our citizens?

John Norton's picture
John Norton
Education writer, Founder & co-editor of MiddleWeb.com

If you're intrigued by Sheryl's ideas and want to read more about her outlook on passionate learning, here's a pretty long interview I did with her last month for PLP's Voices from the Learning Revolution blog:

http://bit.ly/g1LAXd

It complements nicely this excellent Edutopia chat between HWG and SNB.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's picture

Don said,
"The intention behind "learning how to unlearn" is positive. The language is not. What is the point of public education? What is it we want our students to accomplish and master? What is necessary and what is not?"

The reason I used "unlearn" was two-fold.

1)it connected to ideas by two giants I consider mentors:John Seely Brown- http://www.creatingthe21stcentury.org/JSB3-learning-to-unlearn.html and more importantly: Alvin Toffler- The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

So it was a turn of phrase meant to catch one's eye based on what others who think about these ideas have said previously.

2) I think it suggests strongly that as teachers we need to be willing to let go, to learn the art of release.

Just like you I also believe we need to focus on the learning.

Thanks for your comment and post. Lots of powerful ideas in there.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's picture

[quote]So I am struggling differentiating between what Sheryl is describing and the project approach to learning. My question is, has Sheryl taken an approach that already exists and given it a new name? [/quote]
I responded to Danielle with the same gist of what you comment asks. But to yours I would add-- Passion based learning is a techno-constructivist approach and PBL is more of a constructionist approach. PBL can become passion-based but not always. I have also seen it used, more often than not, as a thematic approach to core curriculum and test prep.

Passion-based learning moves past Bloom's Taxonomy to include connected learning and when done well results in collective action, activism, global citizenship, and service learning.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's picture

Danielle said,

[quote]Sheryl, After reading your definition of passion-based learning I am confused about the difference between passion-based and the project approach to curriculum development. How does your method differ from theirs? (Project based approach) [/quote]

Great question!

I think the answer lies in the locus of control.

When I first started teaching I used the project/problem based approach. We did some amazing things in my PBL classroom. I even went on to teach the project based approach in my creative methods courses at Valdosta State University and was a regular presenter for Dream School (a summer school program) that used PBL techniques. I also worked with the Ministry of Education in Belize to re-envision education through a project based learning lens and led Dream School Belize. But all the while I was still in control.

Don't get me wrong, my teaching was wildly creative, the kids had fun and were engaged while learning state mandated content, and all of my colleagues would have told you I was learner centered. But the passion for the most part was all mine. I was the one who chose the topics and gave the options. I decided the objectives (what they would learn) and I decided the assessments (how they would prove mastery),

Passion-based learning shifts because rather than be learner center it becomes learner directed. I believe that all passion based learning includes project/problem based methods. But I do not believe it always works in reverse.

I hope that helps.

I am snbeach on Skype. I'd love to discuss this more in real-time if you are interested.

Danielle's picture
Danielle
Kindergarten Teacher M.Ed. Curriculum and Instruction

I guess that just depends on your definition of the project approach. After taking a course on it at the University of Washington, and using it in my own classroom, I was under the impression that true project based learning is child directed. It just seems like you are giving it a new name. Katz & Helm along with David Sobel already talk about child directed learning in their books.

Great question!

I think the answer lies in the locus of control.

When I first started teaching I used the project/problem based approach. We did some amazing things in my PBL classroom. I even went on to teach the project based approach in my creative methods courses at Valdosta State University and was a regular presenter for Dream School (a summer school program) that used PBL techniques. I also worked with the Ministry of Education in Belize to re-envision education through a project based learning lens and led Dream School Belize. But all the while I was still in control.

Don't get me wrong, my teaching was wildly creative, the kids had fun and were engaged while learning state mandated content, and all of my colleagues would have told you I was learner centered. But the passion for the most part was all mine. I was the one who chose the topics and gave the options. I decided the objectives (what they would learn) and I decided the assessments (how they would prove mastery),

Passion-based learning shifts because rather than be learner center it becomes learner directed. I believe that all passion based learning includes project/problem based methods. But I do not believe it always works in reverse.

I hope that helps.

I am snbeach on Skype. I'd love to discuss this more in real-time if you are interested.[/quote]

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's picture

[quote]I guess that just depends on your definition of the project approach. After taking a course on it at the University of Washington, and using it in my own classroom, I was under the impression that true project based learning is child directed. It just seems like you are giving it a new name. Katz & Helm along with David Sobel already talk about child directed learning in their books.[/quote]

So to help clarify further - let me ask you a question. How are your students using technology to share, connect, collaborate and act collectively? Are your students creating the formative assessments to evaluate their own projects? Are your students all learning different things at the same time? Is social justice at the heart of your objectives? Are your students building personal learning networks by following your lead? Have you shifted from a classroom framework to a community of learners? Are you still the teacher? Or have you become a co-learner with your students and let go of the reins completely? Has curriculum shifted to learning what you need to learn- when you need to learn it?

I do remember you saying that you teach Kindergarten. I will agree (that as someone who has taught kindergarteners and preschool) it is much more passion driven than most grades in public schools. And I hear the passion in your responses, so much so that I am convinced whatever you are doing with kids as a result of reading Katz & Helm's is right on.

Danielle's picture
Danielle
Kindergarten Teacher M.Ed. Curriculum and Instruction

Hi Sheryl,

I agree with most everything that you are saying, I just don't think they are new ideas. I see a lot of what you said in your blog in books I have read (Dewey, Bruner and many newer authors). And perhaps you are not claiming they are your own, I just didn't see you reference anyone.

I highly recommend reading David Sobel's book Place-based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities, if you have not already. I think you would enjoy it. You should also check out the Learning in Informal and Informal Environment's (The LIFE Center) website if you haven't yet. http://life-slc.org/ I think you would enjoy what they have to say about "Life-long and Life-wide" learning.

In response to your questions, my answers are yes, or at least I have plans to do most of it in the coming year. (I just finished my M.Ed. and certificate in Environment, Education and Community). The restraints of public (and in my experience also private) schooling often require me to outline the formative assessments and benchmarks that will POSSIBLY emerge from any investigation and technological resource constraints may limit my ability to share, connect, collaborate, etc. (I do what I can with what I am given and write grants for what I am not..as do many teachers). I think standards are important guidelines...most just need to change how they go about about teaching them.

Maybe you're right that the project approach in the early years is much more passion driven, but I think that it depends on the teacher and their personal philosophy of teaching and learning. It will be interesting to see how the teacher preparation programs will change over the next few years and I hope that a passion for discovery and learning are at the heart of them.

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