Jun 16, 2011 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.
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Innate student passion

In a previous post, I began an exploration of methods for increasing student motivation. We delved into Daniel Pink’s model of motivation that he describes in his book, Drive, and how motivation arises most effectively when a project or task addresses three internal emotional variables at the same time: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Along with Pink, another great contemporary thinker, writer and speaker in the world of education is Mark Prensky, who coined the idea of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”(now well-known across the education technology community) to characterize how technology advances have completely changed the way students learn in a single generation. Like Pink, Prensky is a student of the mind who has dedicated his career to exploring and developing ideas to help educators help their students learn as effectively and purposefully as possible.

In a recent piece, Blame Our Young? Or Use Their Passion!, Prensky briefly references how we try to motivate the next generation to succeed through hitting them hard with the message that the future is in their hands. Prensky cites President Obama, Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich for all using this technique of heaping responsibility upon our youth. An excellent example of this style can be seen in President Obama’s 2009 speech given at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. It was a wonderful talk, to be sure, and it was historic in that it was one of those rare moments when a president has directed an entire speech to our nation’s young people. In that address, Obama talked about how our youth had the opportunity to make choices to help build their own futures, as well as to contribute to helping make our nation become great.

Still, let’s face it: as wonderful as those sentiments might sound to adults, to a young person, that is a daunting amount of responsibility. According to Prensky’s thinking, this kind of discipline-based, “the weight of the future is in your hands” approach to motivation does not come from within, and for this reason, is bound to generally fail. If you think about it, middle schoolers have a hard enough time worrying about next week, much less what might be coming in five or ten years.

“What if,” he ponders, “instead, we asked the kids what their passion is, and invited them to follow and use that passion as a gateway to all kinds of learning—learning that will help our country and the world.” (Prensky, p. 2)

What if we were to really take the time to ask what our students were passionate about and then used that as jumping off points for greater learning? If a student loves music, fantastic! We can use that to talk about history, mathematics and acoustics. If a student is interested in boats, excellent! Now we have a great place to launch into conversations about history, technology, geography and ecology. What? Janie loves dogs? Wonderful, let’s talk about all those wonderful breeds and the genetics (and by extension, mathematics) behind all their beautiful differences.

Considering that due to our different neurological wirings each of us perceives the world differently, the conclusion that a true, long-lasting passion for learning must come from within seems obvious. How can we expect every student—each with his or her own completely unique perspective on the universe—to learn in the same way?

This is why it is so essential for educators to help students find and pursue their passions. We can teach math or science or geography in the classroom until we’re blue in the face. Some students may absorb the lessons, some may not. If, on the other hand, we can help our students find the links between their passions and these same lessons, then we create a direct connection between the essential content and something they truly and deeply care about, helping motivate the student to not only continue learning, but strive for individual excellence.

According to Prensky, “Wherever this (passion-based learning) has been tried—in scattered public, private and charter schools, and even MIT—it has been a resounding success. Kids flock to be part of something that allows them to follow their own interests.” (Prensky, p. 2) In case you hadn’t noticed, we have come full circle back to Pink’s elements of motivation—autonomy, mastery and purpose—and using that innate passion to help encourage students to take ownership of and responsibility for their learning.

In today’s age of technology-based classrooms, with our ability to have self-directed discovery and learning so integrated into the learning experience, we have the opportunity for educators to assume more of the role of coach and less of the role of lecturer. In so doing, we can help our students identify and tap into the very core of the topics that genuinely interest them and give them the learning tools to pursue those topics. At that point, once we uncover those passions, we then have an immediate in-road into the mind of each student and a pathway we can travel with each individual as they explore the world around them and begin to figure out how to make it better.

Further reading:

Prensky, Marc. Blame Our Young! Or Use Their Passion? We can do better than just laying the responsibility for solving our nation’s problems on the backs of our kids.2010.

Prensky, Marc.  What I Learned Recently In New York City Classrooms: How to keep all kids busily engaged at all times. 2010.

Related Reading:

Individualizing Instruction Through Understanding Different Types of Learners

Teaching Creativity in the Classroom