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.

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30 Responses to Passion-Based Learning

  1. SoulCradler February 6, 2007 at 5:20 am #

    Wow, what an inspiring post – thankyou for sharing (with us and your students!)

  2. Barbara February 6, 2007 at 10:31 am #

    Wow hardly captures it! I need some time to digest this but keep talking to us! Passion about what you teach can be in short demand at the K-* level so the first step i think is for teachers to rediscover their passion.
    I know that I will have more thoughts about this after I have had time to let is percolate and so it will show up in my blog soon.

    Also with your permission and of course reference to you I think this will be the closing to my CUE presentation…the answer to where do we go next..

  3. sandi kitts February 6, 2007 at 12:19 pm #

    While I sincerely appreciate your comments, I wonder if the learning would be more engaging for students if you changed all the “I will” stems to “students will” and see if they truly do become engaged. You’ve cited some great starters…..they key is… the starters need to be for them.

  4. Eric MacKnight February 6, 2007 at 8:09 pm #

    Great post, Konrad.
    I wrote something similar recently, here: Finding Inspiration. I will let you know what my Grade 8s have to say about why students are not passionate about learning.

  5. JUN February 7, 2007 at 1:31 am #

    I think it is good how you think to try and entertain students, this will probably encourage them to do more things and also be intersted in learning much more. I am passionate about learning, but it matters how we learn, and most of all what we learn. If we are just doing the smae things everyday, everyone would be bored, no matter of what volition to control oneself.

  6. Will Richardson February 7, 2007 at 8:20 am #

    Thanks for this great response, Konrad. This is truly the benefit of connective practice, to be able to learn from many teachers in distributed conversations like this. You always articulate your thoughts so powerfully, and I it’s going to take some time to digest all of it, but I really appreciate you attending and sharing this.

  7. Jones February 7, 2007 at 6:44 pm #

    I absolutely love this post. I know that I, as a student, would’ve definitely gotten into the Diary of Anne Frank at a deeper level, had I known this about you.

    Great idea, I hope you follow through with it.

  8. pete reilly February 7, 2007 at 8:20 pm #

    It takes courage to put yourself out there as a learner in front of your students. I sense that you are not seeking to entertain them but rather engage them, and model learning for them. There may be long silences and some resentment when you begin shifting the intellectual burden for learning from you to them.

    Great post. There will be a lot of learning going on in you and them.


  9. Lisa Rosa February 8, 2007 at 10:34 am #

    Thank you for this great post! I’m sure, you are right: to share your own emotions is the best way to evoke the student’s emotions and let them to be told and also shared. But what, if the student’s emotions are quite different from your’s?
    I have teached the issue NS, Antisemitism and Shoah for 20 years, and I found out, that here – in Germany – it is not so easy to construct an atmosphere in which the students really can express their very complex cocktail of feelings on this issue instead of formulating emotions they assume they have to have … But this might be only a very german problem.

  10. Karen Janowski February 8, 2007 at 12:03 pm #

    Great post! Thank you for trying to inspire your students, you are modeling lifelong learning to them.
    We learn best what we are passionate about and I’m sure every one of your students is passionate about something on some level. Tap into that – ask them what motivates them, inspires them, what do they do on the weekends, where is their passion? Involve the parents as well – they have a great deal to share about their kids and can give you new insights into reaching your students.
    Web 2.0 connects all of us globally – connect to your parents locally. (I am one parent who is sick of hearing, “Oh, my teacher told me I don’t have to know that for the test.” UUGGGHHH!)

  11. Bee February 8, 2007 at 5:27 pm #


    I am very much drawn to your passionate post, to your background, which is very similar to mine, and to the strenght and purity of your convictions. However, as Sandi points out well, one thing is theory and the other is practice.
    The “I will” , “tell them, show them” do not resonate with me. I’d rather facilitate the process of discovery and have the students think about their own perceptions, share moments of this reflection and passion on topics of their interest so we can then engage in conversation, during which I may (or may not), depending on their interest, share my own stories, beliefs and convictions or just draw from their experience the material to make the points you mention.

  12. Kimmie February 8, 2007 at 8:12 pm #

    I think you are a great inspiration for the passion of learning. But it is hard to change ones mind especially a teenagers mind to have the passion for learning. I like your ideas, you seem like a person who is willing to travel the world kind of thing. I agree that when a teacher gives an assignment and we do it, it doesnt mean that we have passion for it or enjoyment of learning it. It just feels like things that have to be done. Something that couldn’t not be done. We think of our grade what we will get as our final grade. We don’t care that much about learning. But some may care, some like to explore the world, or like figure out life, learn more and achieve what they can. But some just don’t give a crap about anything. Some lives are even messed up by now. I guess the passion for learning is somthing that can’t really be taught, it just grows inside of you. Even if you are encouraged to learn more and have more of a passion for it. It just won’t be the same and it would be different. For me I don’t think i have a great passion for learning. I just feel like living my life and letting it be. I don’t know my future and I don’t plan on thinking about it anytime soon maybe when I’m a little bit older. I think teachers have tried to encourage the passion for learning for my classmates and me. But I don’t think it ever works. I guess it depends on who you are like I know this one boy it seems to me that he has a great passion for learning, when someone is reading a book, his head all of a sudden pops up an dlooks at the cover, it really looks like he has interest in everything about education, maybe he doesn’t want to explore the world but he has a great passion for learning, he’s not like others ive seen.

  13. Dan Bassill February 10, 2007 at 10:56 pm #

    I enjoyed reading this for a different reason. I’m trying to ignite the passion that would engage adults as on-line learners. The issues of the world, and of our daily lives, are complex, and related to other issues on the other side of the world. Unless we can reach into the knowledge on the Internet to engage and learn about these issues, we won’t take the next step and use our time, talent and resources to find solutions.

    I lead the Tutor/Mentor Connection, based in Chicago. My web site is a library, with links to sites like this, that learners can go to and build their own understanding of different topics.

    While several thousand people v isit this site a month, the number needs to be in the millions if we’re to engage more people as tutors, mentors, leaders, or find ways to engage our youth as partners and learners. I hope that some of you who are looking for ways to ignite passion in learners will spend some time with the T/MC helping us ignite the passion of adult learners.

    Better yet, I hope you’ll engage some of your youth in learning about poverty and other social issues, so that when they become adults we won’t need to drag them into t hese forums. They will already have habits build through years of practice, thanks to you.

  14. Terry Elliott February 13, 2007 at 9:31 am #

    You are very much preaching to my choir. Insofar as you can create a learning ecology in your classroom, good on ya. Insofar as you must do so in an imperfect learning environment, more cred to you. But be aware (and I am sure you already are but it bears being public about it) that in the end you might just be the only island of sanity in a crazy sea. And (this is the part that made me really crazy in my backwater rural high school in Kentucky) the system will use your success story as a way of vindicating their methods.

    I responded to a post that Will R had to your posts and that is what brings me here. I am a total pragmatist about work and probably ‘corrupt’ because of it, but in the end I still feel we need a clean break from this system which in turn will become unresponsive and corrupt. So you see I am not a believer in systems, but rather a believer in listening to the clarion call of failure.

    Keep on! Doing thoughtful work and integrating idea and practice in that big ‘stimulus field’ we call the classroom.

  15. Tom February 13, 2007 at 10:01 am #

    I think you’re addressing another symptom of the factory model for schools that dates from the industrial revolution. The passion comes from the personal experience of the teacher, not something received third hand from a college course under a prof who knew someone with personal knowledge. As you mention your own encounter with the aftermath of WWII, you break down some of the wall that separates classrooms from the world. Ideally, teachers will have all been nurses, carpenters, farmers and poets first, cultivating the heart and passion that can inspire the young learner. This is what gives me hope for the new tools that enable students to connect directly with such people.

  16. Craig March 9, 2007 at 8:52 am #

    I find Kimmie’s response above extremely interesting. While it reeks of truth I find it hard to think that a disengaged student could not only muddle her way through your wonderful (and wonderfully long) post but also frame a rather thoughtful response. While she might not know it, I’m inclined to believe she does have some form of passion for learning and, contrary to her statement, the fact that she reflects on this article in her unique perspective shows she isn’t just “leading [her] life and letting it be”. She’s contributing to the dialog of life. Sometimes we get ‘turned on’ to learning without even realizing it. Its a wonderful thing.

  17. Genia April 25, 2007 at 7:56 pm #

    So many times we, as teachers, have fallen into the trap of teaching from the manual. It’s easier, admit it! But passion is contagious! Do you think I honestly have a passion for teaching money to first graders via worksheet after worksheet? No, and unfortunately that will be evident in my delivery. So in my passionless delivery will I help inspire a passion for learning about money? It’s highly unlikely! My favorite part of this blog is the last line, “I hope to learn from and with them.” I truly think this is where passion starts. If students believe that you are willing to be a part of the passion they will open their hearts and minds. Technology has become such a normal part of everyday life. Students need to see teachers learning and growing with the times. Teachers have to continually keep up with what tools are out there. I love the comment about stepping out of our “comfort zone of content.” This is not easy but again this is what students need to see; the teacher learning about something they are not comfortable with. Passion-based learning is essential to life-long learning!

  18. Katie May 6, 2007 at 12:49 pm #

    I completely agree that the passion teachers show toward a subject definitely rubs off on the students. If I am excited about something, it helps them to be excited as well. Since I teach all 6 subjects in a self-contained classroom, it is often challenging to show passion for everything I teach. I often wonder if students (and teachers) would be better off if everyone taught only the subjects they were passionate about.

    You wrote, ”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.’ ” Is it possible to forget about the course content when teachers are forced to madly prepare their students for the standardized state tests? How can teachers balance this? It is certainly a time-crunch having to cover the state’s content framework, and it honestly feels like we are teaching to the test. From September until mid-March, we move down the list of objectives, trying to get all of them checked off before testing. This leaves little time for the fun stuff– stuff that the students would have opportunities to develop a passion for. But from the end of March through May, that is when teachers can unveil their passion, tap into students’ interests, and truly teach. It is a shame that only can last for about 2 months. I feel like I am doing an injustice to my students– like I am not teaching them to my best ability because of the testing burden hanging over our heads. Social Studies is slowly getting squeezed out right now because it is not tested. So why waste time on something that won’t be on the test? This is not how teaching should be…. I feel like the state testing is squeezing out passion, from both teachers and students.

  19. Little Ms. Blog May 9, 2007 at 6:46 pm #

    I like your idea of explaining your own personal reasons for choosing a book and why you are passionate about a topic.

    Passion is contagious. When I look back on my high school, university, and graduate years, it was the teacher who was passionate about his/her subject matter that pulled me in. Chemistry came alive in Mr. N’s class, and my art teacher, Ms. A, opened a whole new world for me. Their passion pulled us in like magnets, regardless of the subject matter.

    I’d like to be that sort of teacher: sharing my passion.

  20. Mia May 10, 2007 at 8:57 pm #

    I am really inspired by your post. I would love to teach my class in such a way that passion would drip from the pores of my students. I am still learning how to manage the responsibilities of teaching and having a family. I think I need to relax a but and just let the lessons come from my heart. If my students see my passion, maybe it will spark some of their own.

  21. Susan May 21, 2007 at 4:16 pm #

    Wow, this really has me thinking about how I teach my students. I know that I should be passionate and excited about every topic I teach and I wondered how good of a job I am doing. Passion and excitement can spread easily. I need to use this to help my students become interested and motivated in all areas of information. As was mentioned in the article, however, not all students will be passionate about the same topics. So, students need to be able to choose what topics they might want to learn about.

  22. Carol Durnfod November 12, 2007 at 10:21 pm #

    I just read this blog while doing a little search on “passion-based learning.” I happen to be presenting at gifted conference on “Passion Based Learning.” I love what you had to say… this is very much belief as well. I began to introduce “passion based projects” to our school for teachers to embrace and use and these saw fit. The learning that the teachers who have embraced are discovering is amazing. The students look froward to their next opportunity to delve into their passions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if passion-based learning wasn’t just a project but a underpinning to all learning experiences.

  23. Hemangi December 31, 2007 at 6:49 am #

    Katie’s response above was exactly the kind of thought that came to my mind when I read Konrad’s post (though I was still getting over the ‘it-was-always-there-but-nobody-used-it!’ and unique nature of Konrad’s concept).

    I felt whether it is really possible for one to come out of one’s ‘comfort zone of content’..especially if there are issues of standards and grades…

    …is it possible to learn the ‘content in comfort zone’ passionately? (just a thought…nothing against ‘coming out of comfort zone of content’:))

    On other thoughts, won’t we be comfortable about things we’re passionate? (…did I jut lose the thread here..?)

  24. Merrick Brewer October 21, 2009 at 4:53 am #

    I am passionate about this topic, so Passionate that I have compiled a book on how to easily implement passion based learning into your classroom. I found that when I first attempted this, I was very fearful about how to run 27 potentially different projects in the room. I have compiled a range of worksheets that are designed to take away the fear of allowing students to develop their own Passion Based Projects. Why not have a look at the website, or order one on approval? Feel free to contact me and ask any questions about how to go about this.


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