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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


Dancing for Balance

I want to keep this short. I’ve been writing, speaking, tweeting, sharing, learning, and traveling a lot. Some days I’m not moving out of my chair for hours. I know I tell everyone about getting in the “flow,” but this is ridiculous. I sometimes work right through lunch, breaks (what are those?) and then the phone rings or get an email asking a question. I end up working more.

dancingplaqueAll of a sudden I just had to stop and take a deep breath. I turned the music up high and decided to dance. I mean really dance until I only think about my dancing and nothing else. You see, I have been so focused on trying to transform teaching and learning, I forgot about me. I need to take care of me so I can be here to continue to drive my purpose.

When you are driven by something you are passionate about, you forget to stop and think of why you are doing what you are doing. There has to be some balance in your life.

I have this plaque on my wall: “Dance as if no one were watching” and remember how happy I am when I dance. So stopping right now — to dance.


Seeing the You in You

Sarah sings “Let it Go” her way sharing what it is like to live with autism. All of us need to tell our own stories. We need to be able to see the person first not the disability or challenge.We need to change our education system so each of us become the best we can be.

Read more

Unearthing Humor

As a parent and educator, you always hope that your children and students find their purpose and passion and then live it. My daughter, Sara Zimmerman, is living her passion better than many people I know. She’s an artist, web designer, musician, climber, mom, wife, daughter, sister, and now author.

Unearthed ComicsCheck out  “Unearthed Comics” where she just launched her book “Un-earthing the Universe, One Comic at a Time” and I’m a sponsor. What a great idea!

Everyday is exciting for Sara, her husband, Rob, and her 5 year old daughter, Cali. I am learning from them that you can play while you work and work while you play. They have a band where Sara plays her drums and Cali has her own set to follow along. Rob and Sara are a real team with the web designing, their band, and climbing.

Check out “Unearthed Comics” and get yourself the book and a decal. You can even take the decal with you when you travel and share where in the world you and the Marilyn decal are visiting on her blog. And for anyone wanting some great marketing advice, download her free eBook on Making Smart Marketing Decisions.

Make Smart Marketing Decisions


Reflecting on Reflection

Reflection is a powerful tool. Today I woke up and wondered why I haven’t written a post in so long. I paused, thought about it, and realized my life has been spinning the last two months. Usually the words just come to me, but these past months have me working every minute. I am a co-founder of Personalize Learning, LLC with Kathleen McClaskey. We are being written into many Race to the Top applications around the country. My eCoach has been approached to support different groups Communities of Practice, so that is growing at the same time. It’s very exciting, but I need to write about ideas that may not be about the work I do. I love to write. These ideas come to me, and I need to put them down. Even if I am working 20 hours a day, I need to stop, pause, and reflect.

So reflecting on reflection came to me. Actually reflecting means capturing the moment when it happens.  Today is the day for me to capture the moment.  First a quote:

Reflection is what allows us to learn from our experiences: it is an
assessment of where we have been and where we want to go next.
~ Kenneth Wolf

For the last two months, Kathleen and I have been writing every day supporting different RTT-D applications. The last week, we have been bombarded with calls from districts and consortiums of districts wanting our support. We are getting requests from schools and organizations from other countries. Today I need to stop and breathe and reflect. I use Gibb’s Model of Reflection:

Gibbs Model of Reflection

What happened?

Kathleen and I developed a model for personalizing learning over a four year period that meets the requirements of the Race to the Top application. We defined the differences between personalization vs differentiation vs individualization and ended up having Porvir in Brazil create an infographic in Portuguese around our chart that we translated in English. We were hired by Grant Wood AEA in Iowa to talk to their superintendents and now are doing a webinar overview, offering an eCourse and webinar series, and setting up a Community of Practice across the state. That was just the beginning. We are getting requests from all around the country and Mumbai, Singapore, and more.

What am a I thinking and feeling?

I am excited about the interest we are getting. Now about my feelings. I haven’t had time to reflect on everything that is happening so fast. This is good. Pausing. Reflecting. I think I got too excited about the interest and stopped thinking about me and what I love to do — write. This also made me think about kids today and all that is on their plates in school — especially middle and high school kids running from class to class in schools with crazy bell schedules. I need time to reflect. I don’t know how kids do it — starting and stopping thinking– thinking in one subject and then jumping into another subject.

Personalizing learning means creating time to reflect, pause, and have flexible schedules that allow for risk-taking and reflection. There is no time for risk-taking or reflection when you are preparing for a test or writing an application.

What’s good and bad about the experience?


Kathleen and I are revisiting and refining our model and process. It is getting better every day. I am excited about what we are coming up with and know there is still lots more to do. Every school, district, teacher, and learner is unique — there is no cookie-cutter answer to meet the needs of everyone involved.


My feelings are that I’m overwhelmed. Guess that’s the way kids feel daily. I get it. That’s why we are doing what we are doing. School does this same thing to kids that is happening to me right now. Overwhelmed. No time to think about thinking. I say that reflection is very important and needs to be part of every day. Pause. Think. Reflect. Write.

What sense can I make of the situation?

Kathleen and I complement each other. We both bring a lot to the table. I live in California where the education bubble burst some time ago. Professional development budgets crumbled and professional developers fight over the same dollar. I thought this was happening everywhere in the US. Kathleen, who lives in New Hampshire, opened my eyes to what is happening in New Hampshire: competency-based learning in all the high schools and 1:1 iPad schools in the Northeast. We interviewed leaders and transformational teachers and found CESA #1 in Southeastern Wisconsin where Jim Rickabaugh shared how there is co-teaching, learning plans, and learning changing. British Columbia is transforming learning across the province where Dave Truss shared about the Inquiry Hub. So much is happening in other places around the world. Why couldn’t it happen here in my backyard?

It can. It is but in pockets, but not the way I was hoping. Some large corporations are coming in and spouting that they can personalize learning by adapting the curriculum and blending learning with learning labs and algorithms. They can “Personalize” the learning for students. Sorry — but personalizing learning means starting with the learner — changing teacher and learner roles. That’s why we made our chart and had to do what we are doing. We see the importance of knowing how learners learn best using Universal Design for Learning principles which then changes teaching and learning. Motivation — Engagement — Voice. That’s what works. Technology can support this but not be the only thing that personalizes learning.  Whew!!  Pause. Reflect.

What else could I have done?

Take time off every day and pause. I need to stop and reflect every day somehow. When I write, it seems to put everything in perspective for me. I still write my column for CUE, but this site is for me to share my thoughts and findings. I will never go months again without writing something even if it is another reflection about my reflections.

If it arose again, what would I do?

Write on the calendar in big letters: Pause. Reflect today. 

It is important to capture and treasure every moment. This is my learning environment that is personal to me. I forgot that every day I am learning something new. How cool is that?


Personalization vs Differentiation vs Individualization (Chart)

This chart is cross-posted on our new site at Personalize Learning. Please use that site for all information on personalized learning.

After writing the post “Personalization is NOT Differentiating Instruction,” I received some very interesting feedback and more hits than any other of my posts. I think I hit a nerve. :o

So Kathleen McClaskey and I did some research on what personalization is and the differences between differentiation and individualization. We found very little information on the differences. And what we did find, we disagreed with many of the points. That lead us to create this chart:

Personalized Learning Chart version 3

Download the chart here:

Creative Commons License
Personalized Learning Chart by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Curated Ecosystem of Live DJs

Seth Godin latest article, entitled “the trap of social media noise“, touches on one of the hot issues about the Internet. I curated this article from Seth which was reviewed eloquently from Robin Good who asked:

Are we creating and leveraging these tools to regurgitate and spit out more noise, or are we working to build tools and to help others understand the value of distilling and making sense of the information wave surrounding us?

Curation can also be an easy way to repost someone else’s information without doing much work yourself. You can share to multiple social networks and RSS feeds. This creates even more noise and confusion. Who was the original author and what is the intention of the curator?

Seth writes that “…either be better at pump and dump than anyone else, get your numbers into the millions, outmass those that choose to use mass and always dance at the edge of spam (in which the number of those you offend or turn off forever keep increasing)… or Relentlessly focus.

Prune your message and your list and build a reputation that’s worth owning and an audience that cares. Only one of these strategies builds an asset of value.”

Howard Reingold interviewed Robin Good about Curation in the video below. I have been following Robin on Scoopit and am learning how to be a curator from him. People can be gateways to the information we need instead of relying on digital robots using algorhythms that produce millions of resources in a search — millions that are not relevant.

I am enjoying building my Scoopits and gathering resources that will help me write and learn. But I do have some concerns similar to what Seth was writing about and Robin was talking about. Just getting your numbers up with followers, hits, comments, and others rescooping your scoops isn’t enough. The Internet is like drinking from a firehose. We need humans to filter now — not just put up lists to links and more links. Building a curated ecosystem means that each curator is customizing the flow of information for their audience. I am learning as I go. I’m following people with similar interests and finding and collecting sources that I would have missed in a basic search.

I am just dipping my toes in this new world and anxious to see where it ends up. Robin mentioned one thing that stuck out to me: “Are you a Mixed Tape or a Live DJ?” A live DJ finds information and distributes it the way his/her audience would enjoy it. A live DJ will talk about the music and personalize it. That’s what a curator can do with the resources they find.


Skills and Values Employers Want

When you do a search for “What Employers Want” you do not see high test scores anywhere on any job descriptions. We are training our kids for the types of jobs that are not there anymore. If you look at the world now, everything is changing: business, government, banking, and education. We are in a transitional period with many of us kicking and screaming afraid to go where we have to go. The world is going to change if we like it or not.

I still hear “if it was good for me, it’s good for my kid.”

Kids Coming HomeThis is unbelievable! That kid is going to be living on that parent’s couch when they are in their 30’s because there will not be any jobs for them. Wait a minute! That’s happening now. Read this article “Is there a doctor in the house?

So what are the skills employers are looking for? Skills most sought after by employers according to Randall Hansen, Ph.D and Katherine Hansen, Ph.D are:

  • Communications Skills (listening, verbal, written)
  • Analytical/Research Skills
  • Computer/Technical Literacy
  • Flexibility/Adaptability/Managing Multiple Priorities
  • Interpersonal Abilities
  • Leadership/Management Skills
  • Multicultural Sensitivity/Awareness
  • Planning/Organizing
  • Problem-Solving/Reasoning/Creativity
  • Teamwork


No test scores here!

Kelly Services listed the same skills. Everywhere I looked the same skills.

Check out the 12 Hot buttons from

    1. Results – they are less concerned with your past experience and responsibilities. What did you accomplish?
    2. Figures and numbers - did you increase revenue at your last job? did you underpromise and overdeliver even if you worked at a non-profit or volunteered?
    3. Awards and accolades – share if you have received any awards or been recognized for excellence.
    4. Blog or website – this shows you have good communication skills, but make sure your website looks professional.
    5. Staying Power – be careful of changing jobs that don’t last two years or less.
    6. Up-to-date skills and education – be on top of all the latest technology and innovations in your field.
    7. Ideas and initiative – Be ready to hit the ground running and solve problems without waiting for someone to tell you what to do.


  • Attitude – be enthusiastic, flexible, and postitive.
  • Leadership skills – be willing to take on more responsibility to improve a product or process.
  • Growth potential – go beyond the job description.
  • Creativity – ability to think outside the box and solve problems.
  • Hobbies – be passionate about something outside of work.


No test scores here!

I’m still looking. If universities base their admissions on high test scores, then maybe we need to rethink higher ed. Uh oh! I’m touching on something here that could get very messy.

How do you teach creativity and passion?

Found an article on Ambition: The Fire in the Belly Employers Want by Jane Genova.

“Those hiring and promoting learned from the downturn and intense economic volatility that’s it’s no longer enough to do ‘just a job,’” says Michael Francoeur, Dale Carnegie Training instructor and executive coach. “Employers now know that what kept their business growing or even saved it were the employees who saw beyond their job description. They pushed to do whatever was needed at the time. Often their most important contribution is persistence. The ambitious stay with a project, no matter how bad things seem. That’s usually because they have the confidence to believe in themselves. The less ambitious would have become discouraged.”

I see that ambition similar to finding someone’s passion. When you are passionate about something, you fight for it. There are no punching time clocks. I’ve watched game designers work way into the night so excited about this or that. Maybe there is that passion about finding a cure for a terrible disease or a new type of transportation that is economical and safe for the environment. Maybe we need this type of passion to come up with strategies to fix our economy or climate change.

So I decided to look for top personal values employers look for in employees:

  • Strong work ethics
  • Dependability and responsibility
  • Possessing a positive attitude
  • Adaptability
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Self-motivated
  • Motivated to grow and learn
  • Strong self-confidence
  • Professionalism
  • Loyalty

No test scores again!

I’m putting this out there to you — teachers, parents, professors, administrators, students. Maybe our whole system needs shaking up. Are we teaching these skills and values?

Students will need to graduate with these skills:

  • The ability to act independently and solve problems on their own.
  • Strong interpersonal written, oral, and social skills to collaborate with colleagues.
  • Strong global literacy to understand people around the world.
  • The ability to acquire the information they need to do the job.
  • The ability to learn new skills as corporations change strategies to stay competitive.

The CEO of UPS wrote: “ We look for employees who can learn how to learn.”

So what does school like if we teach these skills and values and teach our students to learn how to learn?


Just Do It

I read Seth Godin’s blog post But what have you shipped? and thought about how that relates to teachers. If you just sit there and think about what you should do or not sure you can do something, then nothing will happen.

I write because I love writing. I write even if no one reads my blog posts, articles or columns. I hope you do and they give you some value, but that’s not why I write. My mother was an artist who had to draw or paint. It was in her blood. When times were tough, she still painted somehow. Then her talent opened doors for her and she became a courtroom artist. I think of her when I sit down to write. It just spills out of me. Sometimes in my dreams, I’m thinking of the next thing I want to write.

Now it’s time for me to write a book.

I find that everyone has something that they can ship, share, talk about, get the buzz out. No matter how tough times are, follow your dreams.