How to Ignite Passion in Your Students: 8 Ways Educators Can Foster Passion-based Learning

October 11th, 2012 15 Comments Features

Passrion Based Learning

When you think of passion for learning, you might conjure up an image of Albert Einstein. Einstein was regarded as the greatest intellectual mind of our time. Einstein did not conform to a mold. He was passionate.  He thought outside the box. When he was studying at Zurich Polytechnic he had trouble landing a job as a professor due to his unconventional approaches. If you looked at his school record, you may be shocked to know what Einstein’s son said about his father:

“He told me that his teachers reported that he was mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams.”

When Einstein passed away, his brain was stolen and later studied to see if it was physically different. They wanted to find a way to dissect and explain his genius. Initial studies found that Einstein’s brain had a higher number of glial cells, which protect and help form synaptic connections. The idea was that Einstein’s brain was somehow superior. But, the brain is shaped by experiences. Perhaps these changes were a result of his learning, rather than the precursor.

A study in 1985 “On the Brain of a Scientist: Albert Einstein” found that Einstein’s brain was actually not significantly different from others. As an Organization Development blogger put it, what made Einstein different was his mind.

His thinking and passion for learning were the basis of his genius. His brain was the same, but his intellect was markedly different. He was often humble about his intellect, and instead said that learning relied on working hard and imagining the impossible. So what made his learning so different? What can we learn from Einstein?

Many teachers strive for that moment when they see hunger in their students’ eyes. When learning becomes a necessity, they follow passion they feel to achieve something. Einstein often talked about this thirst for learning and the power of imagination.

But what makes this possible and how is passion based learning achieved?

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As educators, we can create an environment that drives passion by doing a few things:

  1. Allow time for collaboration using social media. Constructivist learning theory suggests that students learn from meaningful experiences. Placing learning experiences ‘in context’ with social and emotional cues is said to reinforce learning. The learner engages in a reflection process that relies on the outside world. He uses learning experiences to construct meaning. In a classroom, this might mean using social media tools to increase learning. In Einstein’s case, he started the “Olympia Academy” to meet with friends to discuss ideas about physics. In today’s day and age, our academy might be discussing a lecture on Facebook or creating a Google hangout to talk about a class assignment.
  2. Foster creativity. It is no surprise that creativity drives passion. If you let your mind wander, you may find that there is something that draws your interest.
    • Teachers who cultivate imagination, rather than squash it, are on to something. Einstein had a deep passion for his work. Einstein once said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
    • Educators can foster creativity by allowing self-expression and having students pick their own topics whenever possible. By the same token, a rubric that is too strict may limit creativity and not allow room for a different approach. Instead, teachers can have students design their own rubric for a project, and teachers can approve it beforehand.
  3. Allow time for play. Creating a positive learning environment is just as important as teaching basic skills.
    • According to a book by Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, “play stimulates nerve growth in the portions of the brain that process emotions and executive function”.
    • Play allows the brain a mental break and actually can supercharge learning. If learning loses its fun, than it becomes a mundane task where passion cannot coexist.
    • Play is said to stimulate the imagination and curiosity in children and is used to solve problems. The components of playing are the same as learning: curiosity, discovery, novelty, risk-taking, trial and error, games and social learning.
    • Laughter is said to increase white blood cells and neurotransmitters for memory and alertness.
  4. Allow students time to “get in the flow”. Similar to an athlete getting in the zone, teachers can create passion by creating projects that allow students minds to use emotional connections.
    • The proponent of “Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience” studied how artists engage in their craft for many years. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that artists and athletes lose themselves in their task and super focus forgetting the outside world.
    • According to the author, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
    • Educators can recreate this by choosing an activity that is enjoyable to the student, and slightly above their skill level and then raising the challenge as performances improves. Along the way, monitoring progress and focusing on a goal is important to this technique.
  5. Find out about your students interests. Getting to know your students on a personal level can help understand their motivation. In “The Creativity Personality” in Psychology Today, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that creative people are both rebellious and conservative. Students want to learn tradition ways, before they break away from them in their own way. Teaching a solid foundation is important, so that they can then apply their own interpretations. This might translate in the classroom by having a student who loves Art, apply this to a history lesson once he understands the basic themes of the era.
  6. Inspiration is more than just knowledge, it is about emotional connections. Teachers need to find out what really drives students. A lesson that taps into something a student cares about will produce more learning opportunities. In the age of standardized testing, it can be easy to forget to be inspiring. After all is said and done, teaching is a mix of science and art. According to studies documented by Sylvester and Levinthal, a positive learning environment that acknowledges emotion, improves problem-solving and creates better learning outcomes. Learning depends on the mental state of the learner, including how they feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
  7. Encourage innovation. Educators can allow students to approach assignments differently than the norm. 15 year old, Jack Andraka , for instance, participated in Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fairand developed an early stage blood test for Pancreatic cancer. Creating opportunities for students to take part in greater community events allows them to have a purpose to use their imagination and skills. Studies by Rosenthal and Jacobsen suggest that a positive, stimulating environment, where learning is present, can actually support connections in the brain and enhance memory.
  8. Allow time for your own learning. A teacher can’t really be inspiring if she is burnt out. It’s important to take time for your own learning. The things that interest you, might very well be things that you can bring into your classroom. Passion is contagious. In “A Passion for Learning Begins with a Spark”, the president of ASCD, an educational leadership organization, suggests taking time for professional development, personal renewal and reflection is important to creating passionate learners.

In the end, it is passion that drives all great things to be achieved.  If passion is forgotten in classrooms, we are losing half the meaning of learning. As Einstein once said,

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”


Miriam Clifford holds a Masters in Teaching from City University and a Bachelor in Science from Cornell. She loves research and is passionate about education. She is a foodie and on her time off enjoys cooking and gardening. You can find her @miriamoclifford or Google+.

15 Responses

  1. Amanda Pratt says:

    Thanks for writing this article. You give great advice for how to help students enjoy learning and develop passion and curiosity. Several of your tips overlap with a blog I wrote recently about implementing the PERMA model in education. Thanks for noting the importance of play and imagination in education!

  2. Miriam Clifford says:

    Hi Amanda,
    Thank you for the comments, I am glad to help. My hope is to bring new ideas to educators in the hopes of improving education. It is great to see the positive comments and feedback from people around the world. Feel free to follow me on twitter and I will do the same to share ideas and discuss them. Thanks! Miriam

  3. Pete Laberge says:

    Of course, to ignite a fire in a bucket (assuming that you have a bucket to begin with) you need 2 things:

    1. Some FUEL in the bucket. In other words, some real learning. Some real facts. Some real knowledge. Some real basics. Some real skills, methods, or procedures which have been taught… and also learned and have become part of the person. You know: What to do, and when. And why, and where. And very important: how.

    Example: Here is how you bake a cake. The instructor then gives the student/acolyte instructions on baking a cake. (Probably by example.) We then verify that the student can indeed bake cake, by asking the student to bake a cake. The cake need not be fancy. It need be a cake. It need be edible,

    2. And, you need the spark. Now the spark, can come from anywhere, from within, from without, from where-ever, when-ever. For so called teachers to think THEY are the spark, is hubris beyond belief. The spark could come from a butterfly. It may come immediately, or it may take time to develop.

    Example: The student has proved that the lesson on how to bake a cake worked, by baking one. If the cake did not turn out, then the instructor must repair this problem. Else, we just wasted our time and resources.

    Now then, that student might never bake another cake. Or, 3 months later, that student, inspired by a birthday or wedding, might bake a masterpiece. Or, the student might be a gifted baker right off the start. All the student needed, was to be taught the technique. And have a chance to use it.

    Another issue is: Is learning how to bake a cake, a useful thing? Also: The student might not be a baker. He might be a a soup maker instead. How could we verify this and make bakers in to bakers, chocolatiers into chocolatiers, and plumbers into plumbers? That is the job of schools, and one they are failing at. One they have been failing at for years.

    But in the real world, there is actually very little room for passion. Passion can be deadly and dangerous. (Think of the Mai Lai Massacre!) Some people are passionate, some are not. Let us worry less about passion, and more about graduating kids who can read, write, and count… Kids who may not know how to code, but know how to get through life without being a very creative investment banker, like say, Bernie Madeoff. Yup, he made off with billions. Instead, Kids who can make change for a $20 would be nice to see. Kids who have less passion, and more practicality. We cannot all be celebutards. Those kids who vandalized an entire cemetery a few years ago, were passionate to the tune of $113,000. They were very creative and playful in their destruction. This was pointed out at the trial. The kids at Columbine were also very passionate. Of course, there is also good passion: Take George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney. They did more for their country than Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Yahoo, and Google combined. Or so some say. We will not know for a century. The judgement of history is a slow one. In a 100 years, they may all be forgotten.

    Too much or too little of a good thing… can both be bad. It is a question of having the right thing, in the right quantity and balance. If we teach kids only how to play games, we are going to look awfully stupid some day. Kids need to know how to do MORE than just play games.

    One thing about starting a fire: You have to be careful. If the fuel burns too fast, you may have an explosion. That fire, to be of use, must be challenged, and controlled, and directed. A California wildfire is not good. But a nice fire in a fireplace or wood stove, can be very useful.

    Let us be sure we bake cakes, not poison loaves. Let us be sure we are careful about our fires. Let us have the right thing, in the right place, at the right time, in the right balance, in the right measure, with the right controls.

    • Andrianes Pinantoan says:

      Thanks for the awesome looong comment Pete! I’m just not sure what your point is. That passion is not a good thing? I don’t think Miriam is saying teachers are the ONLY source of spark either.

      I think what she wrote is that teachers can help facilitate passion-based learning.

      I would definitely disagree with this statement though: “But in the real world, there is actually very little room for passion.” But that’s a whole post in itself.

  4. Miriam says:

    On the first point, passion-based learning does not ignore teaching basics. Building a strong foundation is important and I wasn’t suggesting that should be ignored, in fact I think it is necessary to allow students to engage in complex projects. On the second point, passion based learning can produce practical results. For instance, there is a great workshop on how passion based learning can be used to teach digital literacy.

    I think you gave some examples where in extreme situations passion-led violence led people to violate common moral and ethical standards. You mention examples of extremism, violence and war crimes. Of course, educators are guided by ethics and responsible, moral behavior and would instill that in students.
    Lastly, here is an article that consider how the word
    “passion” can be a bit scary to some educators- it also talks about implementing ideas related to passion based learning and addresses common misconceptions. It gives examples of how to use PBL in the classroom.

  5. Stu McDonald says:

    Great ideas, Miriam. We definitely need to empower kids to control their own learning journeys. I teach middle school so the three “R”s are already taken care of. No need for Pete to worry that my students don’t have the basics. Beyond readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic, I absolutely believe that any and every topic a person learns should be done so out of passion and interest. In today’s (and more importantly tomorrow’s) information age, there is no compelling reason why every 8th grader needs to study the same topics. What we do in school is teach the transferable skills that will enable them to be lifelong learners. The “topics” they learn about should be entirely up to them. Sorry Pete, but you’re way off base. Kids absolutely need more passion and less information.

    • Miriam Clifford says:

      Thanks for the comment. Yes I do agree, becausein today’s age with technology it is much easier to fill in gaps in information. I think its important to “guide” students to find their passion earlier in life, so that their college education can be used to further their career prospects.

  6. Pinoy Guro says:

    Thanks a lot. Very informative.

  7. Like your educational background ! I too have an undergraduate degree in the Biological Sciences, Masters in Education – write and enjoy gastrohistory (Italy) – and have found it to be a creative mix for lifelong learning and passionate teaching!

  8. […] students are passionately engaged in their learning – when they are mesmerized by their learning environment or activities – there are myriad […]

  9. Katherine Everston says:

    Torrance performed an extensive meta-analysis that considered the most effective ways to teach creativity. He found that the most successful approaches used creative arts, media-oriented programs, or relied on the Osborn-Parnes training program. Programs that incorporated cognitive and emotional functioning were the most successful.

  10. lynn oliver says:

    I feel passion and creativity will continue to be very lacking for many students and adults due to the myth of genetics in ability and the very improperly definition for average stress, which keeps hidden how our individual environments greatly affect thinking, learning, hope, inspiration, and the ability to move upward in our thinking and growing.
    First, we must remove the myth of genetics in ability and begin showing how our individual environments, not genetics greatly affect our thinking, learning, and growth. This teaching is creating hopelessness and stagnation from as early as the first grade. Second, one very important area we must change is redefining our average stress as many “maintained layers of real mental work” from many past, present, future – experiences, fears, anxieties, circumstances along with many weights and values (some very faulty) which we may develop from a young age which may act as magnets for other accumulating layers of mental work over time. These layers take up real mental energy, depriving us of real mental energy from thinking, learning, motivation (mental reward received for mental work expended); reflection time: the ability to think in more long-term, more creative; and more complex ways. We cannot relax or meditate to lower those layers. When we approach a new mental work it will all return. We can all slowly begin to understand, resolve, and make little changes in some weights or values “we may find are now more faulty”. This will allow us all to now slowly and with more enthusiasm, reach into our bag of ideas, possibilities, and much more hope for developing and creating a newer and better person each day. Our current, false, genetic models are killing off many hopes and dreams for many students and adults today. Much more on this with many applications.

  11. Rizwana Syed says:

    Thanks a lot ?. It was great and very informative.??

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