Monday, September 3, 2012

The other PBL - Passion Based Learning

Louder Than a Bomb
Louder Than a Bomb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I usually cringe a bit when I hear edu-buzz words like "engaging" and "passion".  I'm not saying they aren't important sentiments; it's just that those terms are used so often.  But I won't argue against the word choice of the new PBL - Passion Based Learning.  It's a perfect title for a growing trend in education.

 Passion Based Learning isn't a new concept.  We've probably all experienced our own form of it at least once in our lives.   I'll define PBL as finding something that interests kids and using their motivation to build parallel strengths.  Sports, clubs, and arts programs have been doing it for decades, but finding a place for it in the traditional curriculum is a different matter.  For some reason it has been difficult to produce a profound inspiration in the time between the school bell rings.  One reason is that each child has his or her own personal strengths, interests, and (as Gardner would put it) intelligences.  Advances in technology and pedagogy have enabled educators now to take a more concentrated effort towards individualizing instruction, but how does this work in a full classroom?

I think a key element of PBL is presenting a variety of topics or activities. Most children have a narrow focus of the things they are passionate about, so your first goal would be to expand upon that.  Get out of the textbook and show them something new.  In a similar vein, your offerings should come in multiple formats: visual, auditory, tactile, etc.  For example, Lego Robotics seems to be a popular choice of passion based learning for STEM programs.  Use your imagination and look to your professional networks for ideas.  You'll find a ton of material from organizations such as NASA available online for free.  Not everything is going to be a winning choice for everyone but neither is a homogeneous curriculum.

Another important characteristic of passion based learning is time on task.  Have you ever had a group of kids excited about a topic and then dashed their interest on the rocks of "moving on".  It's amazing how some teachers are slaves to their Teacher Editions and testing schedules.  When you find something that interests students, then provide the time to magnify and expand upon it.  Go off the beaten trail and spend an extra day on the topic or develop an extended activity.  Google is one of many companies that provides employees with time to work on special projects unrelated to their jobs.  Some of the features you use in Google applications came from these very pet projects.  What if you gave your students 20% of class time each week to do the same?  Imagine a room with different groups of students working on SketchUp models, learning the piano, performing Shakespeare, and working on video production.  It sounds chaotic, but it also sounds fun.  Give them the time to cultivate their interests.  If a group of students want to go even further, then consider setting up an after-school club.  Lego Robotic programs started out small and grew into events held worldwide.

Students are going to need guidance and so some form of coaching or mentoring is required.  This would be the perfect time to incorporate expertise from outside of the classroom.  Architects and scientists may seem like solid choices but remember the first rule is variety.  There are plenty of professionals and non-professionals that can offer wisdom and support.  I've seen examples of programs that involve months of expert guidance that conclude with an awards ceremony.  The Louder Than A Bomb teen poetry slam is a great example of this and how students can achieve greatness with mentoring and the time to flourish.

Showing relevance to life outside of school is listed as one of the Nine Tenets of Passion Based Learning compiled by Kimberly Vincent.  This is embodied in the much acclaimed video produced by a YMCA program for children in North Minneapolis.  I'm speaking of course about Hot Cheetos and Takis by Y.N. Rich Kids.  The video has gone viral on YouTube with over 2.25 million views.  The Beats and Rhymes program has professionals helping kids write lyrics about their lives.  They've produced 8 albums of songs covering topics such as bullies, summertime, rainy days, and yes... snacks.

Like project based learning, passion based learning provides the opportunity to learn additional skills and benefits that you wouldn't normally find in teacher-centered instruction.  Time management, working with a group, assuming role-specific responsibilities, prioritizing, extended research, following advice and taking criticism, managing resources, learning new tools, striving for mastery, and communication skills are some that come to mind.  No doubt you'll notice that many of these would be considered "life skills" that you and I deal with each day.

Perhaps the ultimate goal of passion based learning is to use it to develop subject-area content knowledge.  The problem hasn't been the concepts in mathematics, science, social studies, and so on, but rather how they have been presented.  So use their "passion" as a way to show how the curriculum is relevant.  Use the rocket club as the way to teach physics.  Construct mathematical knowledge with SketchUp models.  Incorporate dactylic meter in your poetry slam.  Use the snack video production as an avenue to address nutrition.  Call it the long con if you like, but if the students are interested in becoming experts you'll have an easier time getting them to a level of mastery in a subject area.

The album notes for Y.N. Rich Kids' The Kids Do Stand a Chance might provide the best argument for passion based learning - "We all have something that we are good at and we must find it inside ourselves and carve out our own destiny."

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