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9 Ways to Encourage Passion-based Learning


All of us were born passionate learners. We came into the world curious about everything around us. We had a strong desire to want to talk, crawl, and walk. Watch a toddler take their first step, and you see passion-based learning. Listen to a musician practice a difficult piece until they are ready to perform. Watch a skateboarder try a new trick over and over — that takes persistence and passion to not give up.

You don’t always see that same type of passion in “school.” In many cases, school has been associated with pacing guides, required curriculum, grade-level standards, bell schedules, grades, and teaching to the test. In these situations, the teacher or the administration are the ones in control. The teacher tends to become the one held accountable for the learning. Yet to really LEARN something, the learner needs to own and drive their learning.

Are schools designed to help people learn?

In trying to wrap my hands around learning about learning, I look to Chris Watkins, an independent consultant and leading authority on meta-learning in the UK and former reader at The Institute of Education, London Centre for Leadership in Learning. Chris’ research has helped me find my passion to personalize learning by focusing on the learner first. He just launched a new site where he uploaded over 150 of his articles, handouts, presentations and publications on learning. Watkins’ Key Issues shows that learning is rarely a focus on classroom life. He identified three sources he called “space invaders” that take up the space as teaching, performance and work instead of what they should be focusing on: LEARNING.


“Teaching and Learning Policies”, “Teaching and Learning Strategies”, and so on would be better if called Teaching and Teaching Policies! The real attention given to learning is minimal, and just because a teacher is teaching, does not mean students are learning. Watkins emphasizes that we need a better articulation between teaching and learning.


Performance tests, performance tables, and performance management are inventions that influenced the culture of schools in a way that often creates pressure to perform. But this does not get the best performance: learners with a learning orientation do better than those with a performance orientation and the biggest single variable underlying current patterns of school performance is whether students are self-regulating learners.


Be cautious of the word “work.” You probably heard statements like this: “Get on with your work”, “Have you finished your work?”, “Stop copying my work”, and so on. Chris suggests substituting the word “work” with the word “learning” so the tensions are clear. The discourse of “work” shifts the locus of agency: as Harrison, an 8 year old said to Chris: “When you work, you work for someone else and when you learn, you learn for yourself”.

I can relate to Chris Watkins’ “space invaders” during my school years. The focus on teaching and doing work that wasn’t relevant to me changed my thinking about who I was as a learner. I learned to play the game of school and “do” school so I could get “through” school.

Why do we have to change school to focus on passion-based learning?

School changes what kids believe what they are supposed to learn. If you ask kids around 3rd or 4th grade what they are learning in school, you might hear answers around how to behave, be a good listener, or how to do well on a test. We learned how to be compliant and follow the rules. Is this really what we want as the focus of school?

Now it’s time to bring back creativity, joy, and focus on the power of passion for learning. There are two things you can do to right away to get a child passionate about learning:

  1. Model something you are passionate about and share your excitement.
  2. Determine each learner’s strengths, talents, and interests so they can find their passions.


I was shared with Julie Rogers Bascom, Service-Learning Coordinator for Edina Public Schools in Minnesota, that I was writing an article on Passion-based learning. She shared how the following year-long Passion Projects engaged learners in authentic real-world activities. [Edina Service Learning]

All 680 tenth grade learners in Edina High School’s Pre AP Language Arts Class engaged in a year-long Passion Project, digging deep into their interests as a way to meet learning standards.  Each learner chose a topic of importance, researched and investigated the theme they chose and wrote a ten-page research paper. As part of this course, each learner took action for an identified problem in their area of interest. One learner who is interested in computer science held an e-waste collection, filling two semi-trucks with electronic waste, diverting the waste from the landfill. One learner, concerned about clean water for a village where her grandparents live, designed a water filter that would help filter out excess fluoride from wells in rural India.  Another learner, having been a foster child, lobbied for awareness and advocated for resources for foster families.  Following the service-learning cycle:

IPARD – Investigation > Planning > Action > Reflection > Demonstration, learners used their knowledge and experiences from their research to solve community problems by engaging in authentic service-learning. 


Since I have been on the journey with Kathleen McClaskey for over four years to personalize learning, we are finding many models and strategies that say they are “Personalized Learning” like competency education, one-to-one and others that may support learner-centered environments. But when you look at the bigger picture, it all comes down to one thing: passion to learn and changing the focus to learning not on teaching. This has been my mission for over 20 years. Now I’m finding more and more examples of passion-based learning. Julie’s example of service learning is more than an assignment. The learners found a problem they were passionate about and used critical thinking skills to solve it their way.


9 Ways for You to Encourage Passion-Based Learning in your School

  1. First few days of school.
    Get to know your learners right away before you start teaching. Every teacher and learner deserves a new opportunity to achieve. Consider waiting at least two weeks before jumping into academics. If you already started teaching academics before getting to know everyone, pull back. Check out Rich Czyz’s ideas for the First few days of school
  2. Get to know your learners and their interests.
    Invite your learners to share what they are interested in and their talents and aspirations. Have you ever thought of spending time one-on-one with each learner maybe schedule a lunch date? Ask them to start a journal or portfolio so they can share stories of their interests. Check out Michael Wesch’s Journey to the Joy of Learning so you too can see each learner differently.
  3. Share interests.
    Ask learners to do a pair/share where two share with each other what they are interested in. Invite them to ask each other:

    • What are three things you are really interested in?
    • Why did you choose each of those?
    • Which one excites you the most? Why?Then have them choose one with the help of the partner to share their first choice with all learners in the class. Encourage the class to ask questions and provide feedback with these two prompts
    • I like…
    • I wonder…
  1. Explore interests.
    Encourage them to explore their interest and how it might have a connection to the real world. Since you are probably still a part of the current traditional system, invite your learners to connect to required standards. Have them create a mind map of their interest and ways they can connect to what they know, what they have to learn, what they would like to learn, how they could demonstrate that they learned, and what questions they might have.
    KWL for interests
  1. Identify a real-world problem.
    Sometimes learners cannot connect their interest with a real-world problem. You could start with a problem where they might be able to make a real difference if they could solve that problem together. Walk around your school and go outside to observe what is around you. You and your learners may find a problem or issue you never thought about before. This is called “generative curriculum” which means coming up with questions and direction for learning as you learn.
  1. Plan learning.
    Let them plan together or individually using the following 3 questions from George Couros that drive Passion-Based Learning from his blog, The Principal of Change
    • What will I learn?
    • What will I solve?
    • What will I create?
  1. Make learning meaningful.
    Dr. Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D [ ] shared experiences where she noticed that there was a problem with how she was being asked to learn. She was cramming and memorizing information, being tested for mastery prior to having enough practice time and learning facts with no context or relevance to what she needed to learn. In her post, she hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “The unintended consequences of these artificial and unnatural ways of learning include believing that learning should be difficult, painful, disciplined, and not fun. She also discussed the importance of context as relevant meaningful tasks.Learning in context

“Learning can and should be natural, fun, and engaging.” @jackiegerstein. I agree with Jackie that learning has to be meaningful and have a purpose.


  1. Build a new culture of learning.
    Give good reasons for learning. Watch this video from Dr. Tae about the culture of learning  with secondary science teachers and university professors. What is the secret to learning? Real learning is mostly self-motivated paired with the right mentor.Read Terry Heick’s article Promoting a Culture of Learning  that walks you through using a gradual release of responsibility model:

    • Show Them
    • Help Them
    • Let Them
  2. Create a Makerspace.
    Diana Rendina, Media Specialist/School Librarian at Stewart Middle Magnet School in Tampa, FL transformed her library to serve as an informal STEM learning space for her learners. Check out Renovated Learning to follow her Makerspace journey.Diana Rendina Makerspace Journey


When I think of all the educators I know who stretch their thinking and go the extra mile like Diana, Julie, Rich, Jackie, and George and others, I know that no one can transform education alone. We all need to share and learn together. I found my purpose. It is to learn all I can about learner-centered environments, connect to others who believe all learners can learn their way, and share their stories of transformation of “school” to cultures of learning. I wrote this quote over ten years ago…

“Go with your strengths and interests, find your passion and, then discover your purpose.”

Quote on Purpose by Bray


I am thinking of changing that last part to “and your purpose will discover you.”
Has your purpose found you?


[Post was created for an article in the Fall OnCUE 2015 issue]

Next post will be a review of Pernille Ripp’s book: Passionate Leaerners


Mindset for the New Year

I have a growth mindset– anyway, that’s what I thought. I believe that anyone can grow and change. I learned that the brain is plastic — they call it neuroplasticity. That means you can change your brain. In reading, Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” people have either a growth or a fixed mindset. Dweck states that everyone is born with a growth mindset and potential to do whatever they want to do. Fixed mindsets happen from experiences and relationships that keep them from believing in themselves. They might give up easily because, for some reason, they don’t think they can do it.

In an interview on Education World, Dweck discusses mastery-oriented qualities.

“There is no relation between students’ abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities. Some of the very brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected.


This is something that really intrigued me from the beginning. It shows that being mastery-oriented is about having the right mind-set. It is not about how smart you are. However, having the mastery-oriented mind-set will help students become more able over time.”

I just read George Couros’ great posts More Mindset than Skill Set and More about Mindset and Learning where he shares stories about an 82 year old woman who wanted to learn how to play the cello so she took lessons. It didn’t matter that she was 82. She knew she could learn something she always wanted to do. He shared about his father who had a limited formal education, but was willing to learn new things. George showed his father using an iPad to communicate with his grandchildren. If you want to do something and you have a growth mindset, you can do it. It really is not about talent. All of us have some talents, but if we don’t believe we can do something or don’t believe in ourselves, we might not take the risks to change.

So why did I ask about having both mindsets? I am usually very optimistic with a glass more than half full. Sometimes the glass is running over. I read Public Agenda file: a Mission of the Heart: What Does it Take to Transform a School? that talked about “transformers” and “copers.”  This is about leaders either being one or the other. Transformers have an explicit vision of what their school might be like and bring a “can do” attitude to their job. Copers are typically struggling to avoid being overwhelmed. They don’t have the time or freedom, or for some perhaps, the inclination to do more than try to manage their situation.

Growth mindset = transformer. Or does it? What if you have a “can do” attitude and believe that anything can be done, but feel overwhelmed with your situation. The situation may make you question if you can “do” something especially during a stressful time.  I know administrators that are very optimistic with most activities, but have trouble coping with or managing specific situations.

I believe I have a growth mindset and so do so many teachers I work with. However, some may have trouble coping in specific situations. Teachers have so much on their plates. Some days, they are overwhelmed, because there is just not enough time in the day to do everything. That’s how I feel some days. It doesn’t mean that I have a fixed mindset, but I may have a situational “mindset.” I want to do something about this. I like that I am optimistic. I always believed I had a growth mindset, but wasn’t sure what it was called before. I want to be able to handle most situations and continue to be optimistic.

So instead of resolutions for the New Year, I’m looking at setting my mindset to a growth mindset. If I get overwhelmed with any situation, I’m going to pause and reflect on how I feel. I just have to focus and believe in myself.

What about you? What is your mindset? Why not make 2013 the year that you can do anything you put your mind to do?


Think as an Entrepreneur

Being an entrepreneur takes a different mindset. Most of us have been taught to take orders, follow the rules, think in the box… When someone breaks out of the box and comes up with what they think is a crazy idea, their colleagues just shake their heads and wait for their friend to come to their senses.  That is until the economy changed everything and the consequences for following rules doesn’t mean you keep your job anymore. There is no security and the rules have all changed.

With good jobs going away, middle class downsizes. Jobs that pay well are going away and are not being replaced by similar jobs. The middle class is shrinking. Corporations are cutting back on their work force and continue to send jobs oversees. Some of the jobs that are being cut are accounting, good-paying union jobs, and technology jobs. When you are out of work and there are no jobs, no unemployment benefits, you take any job — even a low-paying job. With little money, people are barely making it by, losing their homes, and not spending money. This is the trickle down effect people were talking about.

What happens to our communities? to the families? Houses go into foreclosure, people don’t spend money so stores go under, people move and take their children out of school. Without enough students, schools close or teachers are laid off. This is that trickle down effect but not the way we were thinking it would go.

You can feel sorry for yourself or you can take control of your life. What if you could make another $500+ a month? Could that help you? I just read “Put more Cash in Your Pocket” by Loral Langemeir who I met at the Make Mine a Millionaire $ Business Conference.

Loral writes about taking the skills you already have and make a business venture using those skills. This is not the idea of starting a new business around something you have no experience. Did you ever sell lemonade in front your house? It’s the same idea. Just make some extra money to pay off some bills or save for something you really want. Loral provides a long list of possible ventures. Here’s a few off that list and a few I added:

  • Tutoring
  • Web site design
  • Scrapbooking
  • Dog Walking
  • Calligraphy
  • Quilting
  • Gardening
  • Music Lessons
  • Organizing Closets
  • Personal Shopper
  • Setting up Home Theaters

What do you like to do? What are your skills? Do you have any hobbies you wouldn’t mind doing more and making money off of them?

Change how you think and think like an entrepreneur. You can make extra money  while you have a job. If you don’t have a job and are on unemployment, try your hand at doing something you love and see what it feels like to make money off of it.  Interested in learning more? Buy Loral’s book and take a chance.


Are we growing less creative?

Creative childrenCare2′s article Are American children growing less creative? shared Tests since 1990 show a steady decline in the creativity levels of American children, despite the fact that IQ tests indicate they are getting smarter.

The focus for the last 9 years has been on increasing student achievement based on standardized tests. Maybe our children are learning how to memorize facts and increasingly doing better on spelling tests and Jeopardy games. Even the TV show “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?” encourages students to recall facts. There is no problem-solving, critical thinking or creativity involved in these activities. The 5th graders on this show are stoked when they get the answer right but there is only one right answer.

Life doesn’t always work that way. What we need are students who come up with the questions and are able to take some risks, find multiple ways to answer any of the questions or solve problems. They need to be able to think on their feet and jump in with new innovative ideas. Who knew even five years ago that people would be listening to mp3 files with an iPod or that cell phones could access the Internet. Email is old school. Now people text, use Facebook and Twitter to communicate. Traditional schools are closing because of so many reasons and, in my opinion, we need to rethink what a school is and redesign our learning environments if we want our students to be productive 21st century citizens.