Passion-Based Learning

Will Richardson made a very interesting comment today during his presentation at the Online Connectivism Conference. He said that learning today can be "passion-based and deeply personalized." I do, of course, agree with him. Since we have rejected traditional classrooms where students are treated as empty vessels and embraced learning that is learner-centred, passion needs to acquire an important status in education. And yet, I really don't see that passion around me. My colleagues seem to be concerned with outcomes and expectations, not the passion that they can awaken in their students. Many K-12 students also seem to be going through the motions and "playing school." Yes - I know - there are teachers who engage students by giving them opportunities to make podcasts or use their blogs to connect with peers from all around the globe. I'm one of those teachers. However, I think it's time to acknowledge that just because students make podcasts or contribute to blogs does not mean that they have become passionate about the topic they're researching. If a teacher says, "I'd like you to create a podcast to share your work," students will do it. In fact, they will even show a lot of enthusiasm because the project takes them out of their seats and often even out of their classroom. Are they really working on something that they are passionate about? Rarely.

So, what interests me is how educators can help young people (or anyone, for that matter) find and pursue their passion?

It certainly isn't a new question. Good educators have always been able to ignite that spark in their students. Today, however, we tend to think that using online tools that appeal to young people will automatically ensure their engagement. Genuine passion cannot be ignited with a podcast or a blog. Instead, we need to give our students the freedom to learn and engage with ideas that they find relevant and important. I think it begins with stepping out of what Will today referred to as the "Comfort Zone of Content." It begins, it seems to me, when the teacher becomes a learner and replaces the static curriculum documents with inquiry, conversation, knowledge-building, and personal networks.

In order to make my students passionate about their classroom work, I need to accept the fact that not everyone will become passionate about the course content that I have so meticulously prepared. Not everyone cares about Macbeth, World War II, or Animal Farm. I can spend inordinate amounts of time trying to make that content appeal to my students. I can try to make it interesting. Will they enjoy making a podcast on the life of William Shakespeare? Of course they will. Will they enjoy putting their own thoughts on Lady Macbeth on their own blog where they can receive comments and exchange views with other classmates? Yes, they will. The very nature of these activities makes them appealing. The very fact that they allow students to get out of their seats and traditional roles will make students enthusiastic and engaged. But what happens after the marks have been assigned? What happens after they graduate or move on to take yet another carefully compartmentalized course on literature or European history? Will they continue to produce podcasts? Will they continue to post blog entries?

Maybe I'm oversimplifying things here but, let's face it, if all the theory and technology that we have at our disposal amount, in practical terms, to having students record an mp3 file, blog for a couple of weeks, or connect with other students to exchange ideas about a fictional character or their home province, then sooner or later these new tools and approaches will acquire the status of mere classroom work. They will become as uninviting as "chalk and talk" is today. It seems to me that we are often focusing on technology for the sake of focusing on technology. Are we helping students find ideas that they are passionate about? Is producing a podcast with my classmates going to make me care about whatever it is that we're working on? It will certainly engage me. The novelty will be appealing. But not for long.

If I am really serious about helping my students find ideas and topics they are passionate about, I need to forget about my course content and step outside that "comfort zone of content." What I have prepared, what I deem pedagogically sound, may be wonderful but, to my students, it will always be mere course content, something one learns in order to "do well" - a hoop that every student needs to jump through and certainly not something that one wants to come back to and keep exploring.

As an educator, I need to step outside my "comfort zone of content" by sharing my own self: things that I myself am passionate about. I need to stop peddling content and show that I am a learner too.

So, in April, when we begin our unit on The Diary of Anne Frank, I am going to start by explaining my own personal reasons for choosing that book. Instead of inundating my students with biographies, historical facts, and supplemental readings, I will tell them my own story and explain why I am passionate about this topic.

  • I will tell them how and why I became passionate about the Holocaust, nuclear proliferation, human rights, and social justice.
  • I will tell them that it has a lot to do with my background and a month-long trip to Japan where my wife and I decided to travel to Hiroshima and then Nagasaki.
  • I will tell them and show them what we saw.
  • I will share notes from my journal and the books I bought at the museums.
  • I will tell them that my grandfather fought in the Polish resistance during World War II.
  • I will tell them that, after the war, the communist regime didn't always make his life easy.
  • I will show them Soviet-approved history textbooks that I studied from in grade six, in a Polish classroom.
  • I will explain what I had to unlearn.
  • I will tell them about the promise that I made to myself to teach young people about the atrocities of war and the importance of protecting human rights.
  • I will tell them that my contribution to our class will be in the form of one text, The Diary of Anne Frank, and that I encourage them to bring in and create their own texts.
  • I will ask them to look for a topic that they care about.
  • I will show them my texts (print and electronic) on human rights that I've collected over the years.
  • I will show them my RSS feeds and Google Alerts.
  • I will show them my delicious bookmarks.
  • I will show them my flickr account.
  • I will show them a resource that I'm creating for teachers and students to help them learn more about human rights.
  • I will show them the various tools that I will use to expand my own knowledge.
  • I will show them that knowledge is an active process.
  • I will show them my network.
  • I will tell them that I am not an expert and that there are many things that I still need to learn.
  • I will tell them that we can create an environment where learning can be deeply personal.
  • I will invite them to create their own texts and build their own networks.
  • I will encourage them to find experts and make them part of their networks.
  • I will tell them that our texts will be interconnected not just because they will all be online but because those who are passionate about their ideas understand the importance of sharing their thoughts and discoveries.
  • I will tell my students that I hope to learn from and with them.