Inspire Your Students’ Passion for Learning

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Inspire Your Students’ Passion for Learning“Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you’re passionate about something, then you’re more willing to take risks.”
—Yo-Yo Ma, world-renowned cellist

What drives you? What makes you want to get up in the morning, to go further, to try harder? Passion! Passion is what makes learning enjoyable, interesting, and fulfilling. Tapping into a student’s passion is a sure way to engage her in learning.

American psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman states that passion is integrated into who we are and makes our learning intrinsic. Passion can take two forms: harmonious passion and obsessive passion. Those who enjoy what they do and feel in control of their work are said to be in harmony with their passions. Those who feel controlled by their passions or as if their passions conflict with their lives possess obsessive passion.

While obsessive passion may be useful when learning a new skill, Kaufman states that it is rarely beneficial. Obsessively passionate students are those who work at something only to achieve a high score or who compete only to perform better than others. Being obsessively driven can lead to inflexibility and may lead to burnout. On the other hand, harmonious passion can lead to creative ideas, resilience, and flow (the state of immersion into and enjoyment of an activity). Harmoniously passionate learners learn because they enjoy the topic and are striving to make themselves better. We want students to develop harmonious passion for their learning.

How do we help students connect their passions to learning? Here are three ways you can uncover, connect, and encourage student passion in the learning process.

Interest Surveys
Interest surveys can help uncover students’ passions. Using an interest survey that includes topics beyond the classroom or the scope of the curriculum is a great way to expose students’ passions. On your survey, craft open-ended questions such as “During free time I like to _____”; “My favorite pastime is ____”; and “I dream that someday I will ______.” Be sure to follow up on these responses by including the topics in the class content. I also recommend giving interest surveys a few times throughout the year, since students’ interests change and develop over time.

Curriculum Compacting
Eliminating repetition of content already mastered by students offers time for them to engage in their passions without taking time away from new learning. Curriculum compacting is often used in gifted education. I believe that all students should be exposed to curriculum compacting because many routinely experience repetition throughout their K–12 experiences. Curriculum compacting requires the identification of key content standard objectives; a thorough preassessment of those key objectives to identify those students with mastery (whether whole or partial); and then offering time during the instruction of mastered objectives for students to work on passions or interest topics. Look back at the interest surveys to guide students toward deepening their learning.

Passion Projects
This is an idea I created during my years of teaching. I remember a very driven young man in my science classroom who had a solid understanding of what was going to be covered in the unit on the solar system. (Similar to curriculum compacting, I assessed him on the factual, procedural, and conceptual objectives of the unit.) Wanting to encourage him to deepen his learning about the solar system, I asked him what he would like to study related to the unit. Together, we crafted a plan for him to investigate an area of passion—nuclear reactions on the sun—and present his findings to the others in the class. I provided him time during certain lessons to investigate his passion area. He looked for books and other resources as part of his homework and brought them to school to use during science class. At the end of the unit, he presented his findings to his classmates. This presentation took the place of the final project that the other students completed.

The point of the passion project was to share just enough information to encourage others to learn more about nuclear reactions on the sun. Oh, and by the way . . . this young man was a first grader! He learned (with guidance) how to set a plan, work alone, and come up with a presentation that was engaging and interesting.

As Kaufman puts it, tapping into students’ passions is a way to inspire learning, build creativity, and encourage active dreaming for the future. It is essential that classroom learning be as exciting as the world around us is. Through their passions, students can connect content to their lives.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.


Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Differentiation for Gifted Learners

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