The Island School, a public school in New York City, embodies passion-based learning.

By Kimberly Vincent

We hear a lot about “passion-based” learning, and although in theory it sounds ideal, there are many factors to consider in building an education system around something as intangible as passion. A recent Future of Education talk addressed the topic, with experts in the field weighing in. The group included Angela Maiers, Amy Sandvold, Lisa Nielsen, and George Couros, and the talk was mediated by Steve Hargadon. These are some of the key points that address the issues around passion-based learning that came from the talk, along with some additional thoughts from John Seely Brown, co-author of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, and educator Jackie Gerstein.

  1. REACH OUT TO THE DISENFRANCHISED. We say that we want creative, passion-driven students, yet we reward the opposite. Standards-based education stifles engagement and passion in students. While drop-outs are considered to be lazy and unmotivated, many are simply not interested because they don’t understand the relevance of what they’re being taught. We’re rewarding students who are best at obedience, memorization, regurgitation, and compliance. And those who do succeed in school often don’t know what to do when they get out. We need to prepare kids to be successful in the real world, not just while in school.
  2. SHOW RELEVANCE TO LIFE OUTSIDE SCHOOL. Passion is the narrative of mattering. It’s that simple and that difficult.  Everyone has a deep rooted drive to know that they matter to others and that what they’re doing matters. When you’re doing work that matters, with people who matter, you’re willing to suffer and study more. Passion-based learning is not about matching students with topics that interest them, it’s about presenting subjects to students in a way that’s relevant. People gain empowerment when they’re doing work that matters and is respected.  Angela Maiers suggests that a class essay rubric may seem irrelevant for some, and that having students surf the web to identify writing standards that are “worthy of the world” may engage them to take ownership of their writing.
  3. INDOCTRINATE PASSION INTO THE SYSTEM. We must switch from a control narrative in the classroom to a passion narrative. While our education system allows continuity between grade levels, provides a streamlined performance metric, and “teacher-proofs” schools, assessment-based education can quell the creative process in teachers.  Lisa Nielsen writes in her Innovative Educator blog: “Are we going to lose another excellent, passion-driven teacher to a compulsory system of education that as Seth Godin so aptly expresses, ‘only values compliance not initiative, because, of course, that’s what’s easiest to measure.'” School mandates paralyze educators from taking a close look at their passion for learning.  School administrators should support teachers and empower them to be creative. Teachers and leadership, as exemplified by those from Aurora High School in Ohio, can read books like Passion-Driven Classrooms (written by panelists Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold) to discover ways to use more passion in their classrooms.The Island School is an example of a public-financed school in New York City that’s implemented a schoolwide enrichment model focusing on talent development and nurturing multiple intelligences.
  4. TRY USING THE SCHOOLWIDE ENRICHMENT MODEL. Passion-based learning is about finding a “hero,” learning what makes him/her successful, and acquiring the practices and the norms of established practitioners in that field.  The Schoolwide Enrichment Model identifies student strengths, nurtures skills, and creates authentic opportunities for students to utilize these skills not just as students, but as practicing professionals providing experiences and opportunities to work and learn with others in the fields in which they are interested. If a student takes interest in the culinary arts, watching the 60 Minutes interview of Jose Andres, following up on studies of molecular gastronomy, volunteering at a local soup kitchen and exchanging recipes with a network of cooks is far more enriching than simply taking a cooking class. Jackie Gerstein said: “I realized that it becomes much more than learning about the culinary arts.  It becomes a way of being in the world, the dispositions that contributes to success as a culinary artist.”
  5. DIGITAL MEDIA IS KEY. Students can read and view media about their heroes and possibly even connect directly with them. John Seely Brown, a notable passion-based proponent and keynote at the New Media Consortium this past summer, says that passion involves an extreme performance with a deep questioning disposition. Without digital media, this quest is not possible in formal education.
  6. TAP INTO THE WISDOM OF YOUR TRUSTED PEERS. Social media and Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) are necessary. Teachers need to publish their innovative work and share it with their personal learning networks. It’s also important for teachers to help students get connected to PLNs via social media.
  7. BECOME A DIGITAL CITIZENS. If for no other reason, then to be able to guide students. Students need to be shown what’s appropriate and instructive with social media in and out of the classroom. Schools’ banning of social media sites impedes this process. Having teachers and students learn side-by-side can provide great opportunities for building respect and openness.
  8. PASSION IS INFECTIOUS. Being around passionate people is the best way to become passionate. A passion-driven teacher is a model for her students. Teachers must be able to lead in the areas that they’re passionate about (whether this be in the classroom or after school). They must demonstrate that they have lives outside of school and that they are well-balanced people. Being transparent with students and building relationships with them beyond the classroom can help drive learning – students work harder with people who matter to them. The Science Leadership Academy, for example, uses Facebook as a means of connecting students and teachers to each others’ interests. Students and teachers even do things together outside of the classroom.
  9. CONNECT WITH PARENTS. Building relationships between parents and schools is crucial. George Couros says that having a pre-conference at the beginning of the school year with parents allows teachers and administrators to listen to parents talk about their kids and gives parents a chance to tell the school what their competencies are and where their expertise lies. Teachers can then create “resident expert” walls. By identifying strengths and talents of parents, parents gain a sense of recognition and human value – they feel engaged. This leads to opportunities for parents to teach topics that they love within the school.

  • Kenneth Jones

    Thank you for posting this. I am trying to make this a reality – at least partially there. Many of the terms are different, but the gist of this has been talked about since the 90’s. As you are obviously faithful that the message will prevail, what fuels your faith? I am really asking, not  trying to argue…

  • My passion fuels my faith.  I am passionate about sharing the wonder of organismal biology through a design and engineering perspective.  However, from 9th grade all the way through undergraduate school, I felt that I needed to follow what was in demand in the job market.  It was only after floundering in molecular biology pre-med research labs that I realized I had been following someone else’s dream.  A Total Talent Profile identifying my passion and preferred learning style along with teacher mentors who could match me with scientific heros would have enabled me the freedom to pursue my passion at an earlier age.

  • Thanks for the mention and noting the passion I have for passion-based learning 🙂  I wrote more about it in

  • Anonymous

    What a fine, real-world, positive, informative and inspiring post. (I dig the red brick building –perfect touch!)

  • Thanks so much for the mention and spreading the passion-driven message. What a great synthesis of the panel and an inspiration for all!

  • This is great. I feel passionate about this article!
    I do feel that saying this quest is not possible (aka impossible) without digital media is a bit extreme. Was passionate education not possible prior to 1992? I fully support digital media in education, but I hate to think we couldn’t live without it.

    • George Couros would agree with you.  This is difficult to say – John Seely Brown shared his sentiments about this at the 2010 New Media Consortium:  HIs example of the use of video viewing to aid learning makes sense.  One thing he makes certain is that we are entering an age of collaboration.  Collaborative learning is key.  

  • I’d like to add one:  Make the school part of the community and vice versa. it’s great to have parent participation, and critical, but it’s also critical that students know they are part of something larger than themselves and that starts with a local community that cares about them. Of course, with digital, we also have the power to build a global community in our classrooms. I’m writing a book about the history of a one-room school house that grew under the tuteledge of a passionate educator who had great success with the support of parents and the community.

  • Jeppelajer

    Love this

  • John N

    Enriching perspectives on passion-based learning . . . an old idea but being made new in the post-20thC wired world. This past spring I interviewed another advocate of passion-based learning, Powerful Learning Practice co-founder Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach. Her vision ties it to connectivism and speaks to the question about whether it must be tied to digital media.

  • Rjsmith

    I love the concept but, I feel that our district is driving
    us in a different direction. We seem to be more concerned about ITBS
    assessments than the kind of results shared in the article. The Dorn model, GRR,
    curriculum development, etc. make for a more rigid and restrict environment
    than is required for the results mentioned above. I believe many teacher would
    embrace (as if it were a breath of fresh air) the type of creative freedom (without
    fear) that this model would provide. It would be exciting to see the results of
    teachers empowered with freedom, technology, and the time and support to learn
    what can be accomplished in the form of real collaborative student/teacher
    products. It is the existence of committees like this that give me hope.

  • This is great. There are many great ways to get passion based learning engrained in the classroom.  I do think, technology has it’s place, but, for many schools, there are so many barriers to entry to engage every student with technology. The availability of devices and District policies make this very tough for many.  If you want high rate of continuous, sustainable, and widespread engaged passions and strengths, I suggest, lots of low/no tech to engage passions, with high tech when you can . Again, this is for most schools, I know there are some that are high tech with abundant devices, with enlightened tech policies, and teachers who know how to integrate it. Having been occupied my self with the concept lately, I am suggesting some approaches to engage passions and strengths through what I call Extreme 21st Century Learning. Taking those innovative 21st Century processes we know has worked to solve 21st Century problems, and applying to classrooms, to cultivate 21st Century Skills. Using ideas such as engaging in crowdsourcing projects, applying Agile Product Development(Scrum) to the classroom, gamification (no tech), makerspaces, and more, integrated into an approach that is Real/Relevant, Agile, Creative, and Engage Passions (RACE).

    I would love for some of you to give feedback on some of the ideas. I work in a school District and have been implementing many of these ideas this year, but, I would love to have others give feedback and ideas.  Thanks for the great post!

    John Miller

  • Passion comes when the teacher finds out what fires him/her up. That is when the learners will feel it….That is where it starts….everything else is just talk. The problem is for each one of us ( teacher or not) to find the lights that fire us up. Once we do that, we can change the world by who we are.

  • I used to teach a class called “Expanding Student Thinking” for a local teacher’s college. After teaching the class a few times, it became blatantly obvious to me that the class needed a name change, because the students/teachers I was teaching could only become successful in achieving the classes’ goals if they themselves were willing to expand their thinking.

    I used to give an opening day handout that contained these words:

    I’d like to
    welcome you to this new class, “Expanding Teacher Thinking.” I rename it for the simple reason that,
    well…here, let Ralph Waldo Emerson tell you why:

    “Scholarship is to be
    created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge. The wise instructor accomplishes this
    by opening to his pupils precisely the attraction the study has for

    If we are to Expand Student
    Thinking, then, we must start with ourselves and ask ourselves why we teach,
    what things we most truly love, or, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, we must
    ground our teaching in our “joy…our true life, that for which we consent
    to live.”

    Joy…passion…it flows both ways. I know the article states this, but it’s always great to hear it from two of the greatest writers and thinkers of the past. (The Stevenson quote comes from an amazing piece he wrote called “The Lantern Bearers”, but I’m paraphrasing it from an even more amazing essay by William James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.”

  • Shalini Talluri

    Great blog on passion based learning using technology.

  • Derek Harwell

    I was so excited when i saw the words passioned based learning and reaching out to the disenfranchised on the same web page. I thought YES!!!! somebody gets it, our passion really should be teaching the next generation how to be inclusive, how to ensure we all get there together. Instead, the article left me cold as it pushed ideas about how to help those who have education, health care, freedom from acid attacks. Please put some passion in this- passion for all humans despite their situation in life

    • auraseale

      my classmate’s sister-in-law makes $71 every hour on the internet. She has been unemployed for 10 months but last month her pay was $18766 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on  Fab99.c­om

  • Jbowman

    Great article, wonderful ideas. Now, if we can just wrest control of education from county Boards of education and teacher’s unions, all these excellent, innovative ideas can become reality!

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