The 4 essential elements of passion-based learning

Teaching students effectively means getting to know them — and their passions

Think back to when you were still in school. What do you tend to remember most? Do you think back to the unique field trips you went on? The cool science experiments? What about a favorite teacher?

For me, it was projects and Mrs. Gianni. That’s what I remember most about school and the teacher that comes to mind. Mrs. Gianni had blond hair that always looked like it needed to be dyed. She was young and energetic. I also remember the way she made me feel, her high expectations, how she was always smiling, and how I felt like I could be anything in her eyes.

Teachers have always had the ability to make a big impact on their students. The teacher chooses whether it will be a positive or a negative impact. Of course every year we start the year with the best intentions. We love all our kids the same. However, there is always that one student (sometimes more) that we just can’t seem to reach. We try different things, we ask for help, we learn their background, but we still can’t seem to figure out how to get through.

At the beginning of the school year, we spend a lot of time working on teambuilding activities and passing out questionnaires. Rarely do we ever stop and ask ourselves who this really helps. Are we trying to get to know them or are we looking for specific information and not what students actually want to tell us? After all, we’re the ones that write the questionnaires.

Perhaps it’s time for a new approach. Passion or strength-based learning is based on the idea that if you really want to get to know your students, you first need to find out what they are passionate about. Figure out why they behave the way they do and how they learn best. Then show them that you care. Instead of focusing on their deficits, focus on their strengths. Teach through their strengths to address their weaknesses.

Getting started

What is passion/strength based learning?  Passion-based learning is using a student’s passions to help them learn. Strength-based learning is using their strengths to teach to their weaknesses. For instance, if a student is struggling with counting but they love building, a teacher might have them count blocks as they build. Not only will they enjoy the exercise more—and not ask, “Why do I have to do this?”—but they will build up their weakness. These methods help students feel valued and they turn your classroom from a teacher-centered classroom into a student-centered one.

Next page: How to start using it in your classroom

Why should you be doing this right now? The question shouldn’t be why but why not. I know there are standards to teach and goals to meet, but students are the future—a future we can’t even conceive of yet. So how do we prepare them for that? We can’t just keep throwing standards and curriculum at them without their input. They need a voice in their education so that they feel valued. Passion-based learning motivates and engages students because it’s about them, not us. The students become the decision makers instead of the teachers. With just a few steps and modifications, it’s an easy, and in some ways, perfect transition because the teacher starts doing less teaching and more guiding.

How can you start this in your classroom?

  • Start by telling students about your own passions. Students will feel more comfortable sharing after hearing their teacher open up.
  • Let them know that it’s OK and safe to share their passions. They need to feel like their passion, no matter how bizarre to others, is just as important as everyone else’s.
  • Connect students with others with share similar interests. These could be other students, teachers, staff, or people from the community.
  • Assure the students that they are in control. I know this can be hard for teachers to pass control on to students, but it’s important that they feel like they have some direction over way they learn.
  • Allow them time to develop their passions and know that their passions will change over time.
  • Connect passions to real-world experiences. If the students can’t see how their passion is important in the real world, they won’t make the connection to what they can be after school ends.
  • Collaborate with parents and the community. Students will feel valued if their passions are recognized at school as well as at home.

Give students a strengths-based assessment. Thrively is a great resource for this type of assessment. Thrively is a free tool that anyone can use to assess their students’ strengths and then help them discover their passions. After the strength assessment, students are provided with resources to show how their passions are used in the real world and they are connected with videos, professionals, summer camps, and more to help them explore their passions to an even greater extent.

Who can help you start this?  Strength and Passion-Based learning has been gaining recognition recently. I first learned about it from Angela Maiers in her book, “The Passion-Driven Classroom.” She is one of the real leaders in this field. Angela is also a leader in Genius Hour and Choose 2 Matter. She believes that every student is a genius. She created a free eBook called “Liberating Genius”. This is a fantastic book that helps teachers learn how to unleash the geniuses in their classrooms. Don Wettrick is another educator doing amazing work in this field. His book, “Pure Genius” will inspire and motivate you to become a genius yourself and to help your students gain the competitive edge. Another great place to learn about passion-based learning is on Twitter. There are so many educators who are passionate about this topic. (You can search using the hashtags #geniushour and #passiondriven.)

So what are you waiting for? Passion-based learning is easy and makes sense. It turns your classroom from boring to engaging. It takes your content from teacher-created to student-created. It opens up doors and takes down walls. If you really want to make an impact on your students and change the way they think, act, explore, and learn then you need to find out what they are passionate about and teach to those skills.

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