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July 21, 2012 / Jeff d.

Passion-based Learning – A Call for Help

I just got back from attending and facilitating sessions at New Tech Network’s Annual Conference, so my mind is swimming with thought.  I have dozens of takeaways, but one that keeps popping back into my mind as I try to unwind is the idea of injecting passion into our school and my classroom.

The conference literally started and ended with this idea.  The opening keynote was given by Dennis Littky, co-founder of Big Picture Learning, a network of great schools that use PBL.  These schools ask students from day one about their passions.  They help students find internships based on these passions starting freshman year.  Two students accompanied Mr. Littky, and their stories made it clear that it was these passions that drove them to love learning.

The conference ended with a series of Ignite talks.  All of them were inspiring, but it ended with Mike Kaechele’s amazing talk titled #standardizethat, which challenged politicians and ed reformers (and everyone else) to think about the things in education that should be standardized.  One of these is passions.

As I think about this now, I find it very difficult to find a way to infuse more passion into my math classroom.  Many projects were discussed at the conference that gave students the kind of choice needed to be able embed their passions into them.  But these projects often come from Social Studies classes (or really anything but math), where I imagine the thematic structure makes this easier to happen.  How can I do this in my math class?

I’d like to think that I can help my learners appreciate math for its ability to help us make meaning of the world around us, its usefulness in solving problems, and its inherent beauty.  But that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about the learners having true choice to pursue any topic and letting their passion drive the project.

Here is the best I can come up with, and honestly I think it’s garbage.  That’s why I’m asking for help.

  • Learners begin thinking about what they are passionate about early in the year.  In fact, a better question that I heard from Dennis Littky might be “What makes you angry, and how can we fix it?”
  • Learners then research and prepare for a 5 minute presentation at some point throughout the year (I’m thinking like every Friday, for example).  Of course, the presentation time is being influenced right now because of the Ignites – I’m open to whatever.
  • [wherein the plan falls apart] Somehow, learners find a way to incorporate math into their research.  I’m picturing using linear regression to make a prediction, or something like that.

That’s it.  The plan is terrible.  The math is an add-on.  I need help.  How can I give learners the kind of choice and voice necessary to bring their passions into the classroom?  How can I help them make meaning of a real problem that they want to fix, but still ties into math?  And – I hate to say it – but how can I bring this kind of project to them without infringing on too much other learning time?  At best, this plan can create a spark.  At worst, it can be a complete waste of time.  What can I do to make it better?


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  1. MrHonner / Jul 21 2012 10:40 am

    Anything that helps you better know your students as individuals–like learning about their passions–is definitely time well spent. Plus, just understanding that the question “What am I passionate about?” needs to be asked is important; some people rarely consider it.

    In terms of connecting this all to mathematics, the more you and your students engage in this activity, the more meaningful it will become. It’s a long-term investment in your practice (it has been for me), but it’s worth it. Collecting and representing data; analyzing economic impact, applying game-theory to decision-making, using probability and expected value to evaluate opportunity; creating elementary models of ideas so they can be explored: these are all ways we can use the tools of mathematics to engage with our passions.

    In addition, I’d suggest that you invest time in teaching your students to ask good mathematical questions. Help them learn to pose specific questions, general questions, creative questions, clear questions. Being able to ask and evaluate good mathematical questions will help them ask the right questions in pursuit of their passions, whatever they might be.

    • devaron3 / Jul 21 2012 2:22 pm

      I agree, and thanks for the suggestions. I’m especially interested in helping students ask good mathematical questions (as well as my own questioning!).

  2. Justin Lanier / Jul 21 2012 12:29 pm

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for sharing your searching thoughtfulness.

    In my experience, it’s hard to convince students that the narrow mathematics they typically learn in school relates to their passions. That’s because often it doesn’t in any direct way. The dancer or model airplane enthusiast won’t be convinced that manipulating fractions or solving equations has anything to do with their passions, because it doesn’t match up with her experiences of either.

    One way to tackle this is to make mathematics bigger, rather than trying to force a connection. This involves trusting that math is robust enough that students will make personal connections to it if allowed enough time, headspace, and resources. That’s a weighty endeavor, but one that can actually be approached. My colleagues and I have gone about this by writing a blog for our students called Math Munch, where we try to share how big and multifaceted the world of mathematics is. We’ve just added a For Teachers page.

    Another thought is that fostering new passions or morphing established ones are alternatives to making direct connections. Passions come out of our mouths like simple, concrete nouns, but they’re actually complicated networks of feelings, attitudes, and experiences. For learning to be passion-based, the important thing isn’t to connect subject matter to the nouns–like “dancing” or “building model airplanes”–but rather to help students incorporate parts and aspects of mathematics into their own complicated, personal network of feelings, attitudes, and experiences. Briefly, we need to foster connections to the passionate individual, rather than to her established and named passions.

    I’ve also made efforts to make choice central to my math classrooms. I’ll be taking another swing at it this year that will probably look different, but you can read here what my thoughts were last year.

    I look forward to reading more. Good luck!

    • devaron3 / Jul 21 2012 2:24 pm

      Thanks a lot for your articulate response. I appreciate your suggestions…I’ve been keeping an eye on “Math Munch” and will continue reading.

  3. The Puzzle School / Jul 21 2012 1:54 pm

    I’ve never liked the focus on passions. I don’t think there’s any reason that a student can’t be passionate about all subjects if they’re presented in a way that is not too challenging or overwhelming or too easy and has some reason behind it (even if that reason is simply to overcome the challenge).

    I think it’s hard to instill a sense of passion about something in a large group setting with diverse skills. Social comparison makes it easy for a student to look around and say to themselves “I’m not as good at this as other people”. That’s a passion killer.

    That’s why I don’t like the word passion. It shouldn’t be possible to damage passion if you see a number of people doing something more effectively than you can, but that does happen.

    If you take a young kid and at home work with them on mathematics, constantly challenging them to solve harder and harder problems then almost any child will develop a passion for math. The question is, how do we reproduce this at scale.

    My theory is that it’s best to create environments where students can be engaged in different activities at the same time so there is less direct social comparison. In order to do so education needs to be focused on creating interactive challenges (I think puzzles like the ones here: are a good start) that students can solve at their own pace.

    The act of figuring something out on your own, of discovering that you have the ability to solve something with little to no outside help I think is one of the most effective ways of creating a sense of “passion” in a student. In order to do so, though, we really need to rethink the way we approach teaching and education.

    • devaron3 / Jul 21 2012 2:05 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure that I fully follow what you’re trying to say (re: social comparison), but I think to a certain degree we are on the same page. Your description of effective ways of creating passions in a student is what we try to do every day at my school, and we are trying our best at “rethinking the way we approach teaching and education.” Your disagreement about “passion” seems to be semantic in nature. What I am talking about is adding a new element to my classroom of bringing in students’ outside interests more effectively.

      • The Puzzle School / Jul 21 2012 2:58 pm

        I don’t think it’s as much about semantics. I agree that helping students develop a passion for something is great. I just think this is a very abstract and complex goal, much like saying the goal of a dating site is to help people fall in love. Falling in love, like passion, is a very complicated emotion and it’s difficult to nail down exactly what it is and how to foster it. I’d rather focus attention on more well understood aspects of learning such as challenge and progress. which I think are likely to create the conditions for passion to develop.

        I also don’t like the idea of focusing too much attention on tying material to passions. The point is to create a passion about the material, not to simply associate it with an existing passion. I don’t think this strategy is bad, I just think it’s not as beneficial as creating an environment that can foster a passion in the material itself.

        If we focus on challenge and progress then I think it becomes easier to come up with ideas on how to approach the problem and evaluate our solutions. I think if you create an environment where students are constantly figuring out solutions that are just hard enough where they have to think about them, but not so hard as to overwhelm of frustrate them too much then the sense of progress created by solving such problems can frequently lead to passion.

      • The Puzzle School / Jul 21 2012 3:05 pm

        Also don’t mean to knock your efforts at all. It sounds like you’re doing some great stuff. I’ve just been wrestling with the idea of passion recently and more and more it seems like a poor goal just because it’s so hard to figure out (much like love).

      • devaron3 / Jul 21 2012 11:07 pm

        No worries, I value anyone’s input (well, almost anyone). Again, we’re not too far off here: challenge and progress…I like these, strive for them, and agree that they foster engagement. I’m simply trying to tackle adding more student interest and passion – a big endeavor, as you point out – and am asking for help. Thanks again for your input.

  4. Sean Nagamatsu / Jul 21 2012 7:14 pm

    Hey Jeff,

    Came across your blog from the session you ran on grading and reporting in the PBL model. I really like the big picture/questions you’re taking away from NTAC (and wish I had been there!). I often worry about how effectively we’re engaging with our students passions and helping them build new ones at Searider New Tech. I like the Littky quote you’re working with, “What makes you angry, and how can we fix it?” I wonder if tweaking this a bit to apply to math would get this closer to the kind of passion you’re hoping to inject.

    So many people I talk to have had negative experiences with math. I’m not sure exactly where it starts for most of them. I wonder if your students have already had some before coming to you. If so, it seems like analyzing those experiences might lead to some passionate inquiry. Why were the negative? What could have made them better? I’m not sure if this would get at the math concepts you need to cover, but it might be an empowering lead-in. Another element of PBL I’m hoping to get better at this year is getting my students to help me develop projects. The kind of inquiry coming from “What makes you angry, and how can we fix it?” could be a great seque into this.

    Thanks for sharing! Glad you’re blogging.

    – Sean

    • devaron3 / Jul 21 2012 11:03 pm

      Sean, I love that idea! Students can investigate their relationship with math…everyone’s is different, and if it is negative, that *should* make you angry. Thanks for your comment and for checking out my blog. If we don’t get a chance to meet up again, I may have to take a “business” trip to HI.

  5. Michael Kaechele / Jul 22 2012 9:09 pm


    Does a student’s passions have to tie into math? That is where the connection could be artificially forced at times in my opinion. What about focusing on passions in advisory related to a college/career focus? I think just talking to and listening to a student’s hopes and dreams and encouraging them even if it is not an actual part of your day-to-day class content is powerful and important.

    • Sean Nagamatsu / Jul 23 2012 3:47 am

      Hey Mike! Glad to hear “Standardize That!” went so well! Congrats on closing out the talks!

      I think this is a legitimate question. I was watching a video about collaboration and innovation at Apple (, and I asked myself, “How well are we preparing our students to work at companies like this?” From there, I wondered, what is the product our students might be most passionate about? Of course, it would be great to ask them, but I would bet smart phones and tablets are near the top of that list.

      Maybe itʻs just my relative inexperience in related content, but I feel so far away from being able to say, “If you want to build a smart phone, you need to go out and learn this skill, this skill, and this skill,” and then maybe looking at the foundational skills that build toward that. The amount of need to knows I have in order to bridge that gap feels egregious, and I donʻt like thinking my students will also have that gap. Maybe Iʻm misjudging this.

      Sorry if itʻs a bit tangential, but it seemed a bit related, so I wanted to share. I think a business trip is definitely in order!

    • devaron3 / Jul 25 2012 1:32 pm

      You make a good point, and one that I’m all too aware of. Where my idea comes up short is forcing math into a passion rather than shooting for the other way around. Luckily I’ve got all these other ideas from people that I can try instead!
      Also, I was just looking through my NTAC notes and saw this note to myself: “Idea: Advisory could be partly used to find passions.” So we’re on the same page there.

  6. Drew / Jul 23 2012 8:57 am

    Love the thread here – I’ll throw a few random thoughts into the mix.

    1. I agree with the idea above that part of our work is to cultivate passions in our material as opposed to just tapping into existing passions. I can see this being as simple as sharing interesting questions or topics that involve mathematical reasoning as warm-ups or for optional exploration. Once we get into PBL, I think the benefit is that we start to see our content all around us. Rather than waiting to take each idea and really tease it out into a great problem, I think there is room to just throw interesting questions or wonders at kids. Great opportunity to hone our engagement meters too.

    I am also a fan of using TEDTalks for this purpose. Obviously you have to balance it out with instructional time, but even promoting TEDTalks that involve engaging ideas with mathematical dimensions might be a great way to kickstart kids into new interests/passions. Here’s an example of one that might not connect to specific high school math content (until you get to stats) but that might really fire up some thinking:

    2. Just be on the look-out for passions or for interests and help students see how mathematical thinking might play into that. I recently purged a bunch of my own papers/docs/notes from high school and college and ran across a bunch of sheets where I was working (by hand) on a statistic called “Points Per Shot” for basketball. At the time I remember wanting to: A – argue with my idiot friend about why Shaq was WAY less valuable that MJ and B – justify my own existence as a 3pt shooting high school player. I had the top 20 NBA scorers for 3 straight seasons ranked by P.P.S. and was playing around with the troublingly high standing for Glen Robinson one year. I had no idea about Bill James and the growing sabermetrics movement, but my whole academic future might have been different if I had.

    • devaron3 / Jul 25 2012 1:37 pm

      Thanks Drew! You’ve got some good ideas here. I think the main thing I’m pulling from everyone’s comments is that it is important to tap into existing passions and encourage new ones – including passions that are math-related – but it’s not a good idea to force math into them as an appendix. That’s too artificial. But maybe not as artificial as Glen Robinson’s value on paper!

  7. Sue VanHattum / Jul 24 2012 10:37 am

    Personally, I want students to see math-for-its-own-sake as something one can develop a passion for, even if they’re not feeling it yet. Math is not just about its applications. It’s a way to think.

    Loving this comment thread. (I wouldn’t have commented myself, but that was the only way I could see to get notified of new comments.)

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