A shorter version of this interview I did with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach was recently published by Education Week Teacher. It’s drawn some good comment and been highlighted in several of the SmartBrief daily newsletters that cover education topics. I thought I’d share the longer version here (including the original introduction) for those who find Sheryl’s ideas about passion-based learning intriguing and might appreciate a fuller discussion.

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Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach often speaks of the “moral imperative” for K12 educators to assure that all students gain the skills, knowledge and dispositions they need to be successful in a connected world “where the ability to think critically, collaborate effectively and master increasingly powerful digital technologies” will determine their success in school, college and careers.

Nussbaum-Beach has been an educator for 20 years, serving as a public school classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor, and digital learning consultant. She is a frequent international speaker and the chief executive officer of Powerful Learning Practice LLC, a company she founded with educator-author Will Richardson to provide “professional development for 21st century educators.” PLP’s client list includes public, parochial and independent schools in the United States, Canada, Australia and Norway.

Nussbaum-Beach is also president of the digital consulting firm 21st Century Collaborative, LLC and a doctoral candidate at The College of William and Mary. She serves on the advisory board for the 2011 Horizon Report on trends in K12 education. Her first book, The Connected Educator, will be published by Solution Tree later this year.

In this interview, Sheryl describes the “shift” she believes must take place in teaching and learning practices if elementary and secondary schools expect to remain relevant in an era when information and communication technologies will continue to expand exponentially.

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You’re often introduced as an advocate for integrating technology and 21st century skills into daily teaching practice. But you prefer to describe yourself as a champion of student-driven “passion-based” learning. Help us understand the shift you say must take place in teaching, and why you choose a word like “passion” to talk about student learning.

SNB: Today knowledge is everywhere – it’s easily accessible. With a couple clicks of the button, I can find content beyond my ability to absorb it in a lifetime. As a young person today, I can learn anything I want to learn at any time I want to learn it. Therefore, instead of focusing so much of our effort on the content, we really need to focus on helping them learn. We must help students understand how to synthesize and analyze and to create – to think deeply and become passionate learners.

We live in a connected world, with the Internet and powerful digital technologies literally at our fingertips, so it would be foolish not to integrate those things into the learning experience. But when I talk about the shift to 21st century teaching and learning, I am not talking primarily about changing the tools we use. I’m talking about transforming the way most teachers teach today – either because they were taught to teach that way or because the accountability system makes them believe they have to teach that way.

Instead of thinking that I am “The Teacher” – the knowledge-giver who stands up front in total control – instead of that traditional pedagogy, we need a 21st century vision of teaching, where there is less teacher talk and more student talk, where what I’m doing is thinking about how am I going to pull the most out of these kids; how I’m going to enable these students to be empowered; how I can make sure that I create a classroom that’s free from threat and stress, where they’ll be willing to take risks.

The question becomes: what is the best pedagogy for real world learning experiences, and how does that shift when I’m using technology. As a 21st century educator, I think about the relationship between content, the kinds of strategies I’m using as a teacher, and the technologies available.

And it’s going to be a different way of thinking when I put the learner first. Instead of me having all these preconceived ideas of what they should doing, saying and producing, I have to be open to what I find in each student. I have to discover – and help each student discover – their talents and interests and create a learning environment where they can use those gifts and passions to learn from a position of strength.

There’s that word “passion” again. It’s not a word we’re used to hearing when we talk about the learning process in school.

SNB: I know passion-based learning may seem like a crazy kind of term. Some people hear it and think about learning that’s out of control – that it’s all about what students want to do and not about what they need to do. A lot of critics will say kids don’t even know what they want to do. They worry that we’re going to take learning and shortcut it to the point that people aren’t truly deep learners. That’s not what I’m advocating in any way, shape or form.

But I think one of the things we’ve done is we’ve trained the passion out of our students from the second grade up. I think kindergarteners and first graders and some second graders still have it, but after that, forget it. It’s gone. Another way you might want to describe it is a “sense of wonderment.” Really looking at the world with wonder and bringing a sense of wonder to certain things that we just want to learn everything about.

So I think passion is a great word, and it fits with the ideas that I’m trying to convey. If it causes people to step back and to think, either from a positive or a negative place, at least they’re thinking.

This personalization of learning – giving students more control – is frequently criticized as an abrogation of the teacher’s responsibility to direct the learning process.

SNB: What I’m envisioning is that I am still the teacher in the room – as the decision maker, I am in control of the outcomes that I want to happen around core content or the affective domain. The difference is that I am going to allow these kids to pick and choose the areas they are most passionate about. I’m going to use an “appreciative” strategy that says students learn best when we have them work from their strengths to accomplish the outcomes, rather than having to work from their weaknesses. Which means that as a teacher, I’m going to have to be a master of the curriculum. I’ve got to know exactly what I want the end result to be in order to allow these kids to approach what we need to learn from their own passion or their own personal interest.

What does it mean to have students “work from their strengths”?

If we support teachers with the right working conditions, they will have the time to develop deeper relationships with their students. So, just like a parent, they will come to understand each student’s strengths – what their interests are, but also how each of our students learns best. That’s what I mean by “strengths.” Good teachers have always had this capacity, but we’ve stolen so much time away from them in our obsession to “cover the curriculum” that it can be much more difficult to accomplish. One of the chief ways teachers gain this insight is through ongoing informal classroom assessments. That kind of assessment also takes time and is more difficult to accomplish in the helter-skelter rush to “be accountable.”

Whenever you use a one-size-fits-all assessment or instructional approach, some people are going to be allowed to work through their strengths, and others are going to have to approach that objective through their weakness. The potential to have students work from their strengths really comes alive in the 21st century, because the new technologies and web tools allow us to manage and express knowledge and information in many different ways. We find ourselves being able to work through content, solve problems and apply what we know using tools and approaches that favor our strengths, even if our strengths aren’t well-suited to the old paradigm of one size fits all.

I was watching some video from British elementary schools recently. These are films promoting advanced teaching skills. In one clip we see the teacher talking to her class about collaborating on a project. “Find the partner you need,” she says. “Some of you are picture-smart or word-smart or number-smart. Help each other.” She’s focused on getting students to recognize their strengths and also collaborate so they can help each other become stronger in other “smart” dimensions too.

When you describe the passion-based approach in your conversations with teachers, what’s the reaction?

SNB: A lot of teachers say, well, it’s not going to work, because the students I have are just not self-directed. I have to tell them what to do and what to say and what to think. And that’s true to a certain extent, because we’ve trained that into students. But with skillful teaching, we can untrain them.

Teachers who have made this breakthrough often talk about how risky it feels at first. But there is ample evidence out there that students can become confident learners again. Shelley Wright, a high school teacher in one of our Canadian PLP communities, wrote about this process recently in our group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution. She details her experience as she completely restructures her unit on the Holocaust to put students in charge of the learning. It’s an a-ha moment to read her posts and see the amazing growth that takes place in her students.

Can you give us an example of how you might teach using a passion-based approach?

SNB: Typically what I do is I try to construct my course or unit under some big umbrella that I already know is going to be very interesting to kids where they are right now in their development. So if I’m working with middle schoolers, then one unit I might do is around skateboarding. And so the first thing I do is I sit down and I think about the many aspects of skateboarding.

So I might come up with skateboarding parks; people who skateboard; marketing the designs, clothing, boards; maybe some of the laws that try to control skateboarding; the lifestyle that goes with skateboarding; the extreme versions of the sport; the physical attributes. So I’m kind of brainstorming. And when I look at my list, I pick something, say the laws, and I ask myself what typical kinds of content, coursework, fits with this – civics education, debate, history, etc. If I’m looking at marketing and design – that could work very well with a marketing or consumer course, propaganda and media literacy, persuasive speech. If I look at competition skateboarders I can look at the regions of the world they live in, the climate, the geography there, the culture, how the lives of skateboarders may be different there because of the culture, and so on.

Next what I do is actually align different threads of investigation with the standards. Then I go into the classroom with the kids and say, OK, this is what we’re going to learn about – we’re going to think about skateboarding in all kinds of different ways. So let’s brainstorm. I do a concept map with them, and then I look at the things they’re most interested in.

There are going to be certain things that I will teach, because I know there will be state-mandated testing and I want to make sure they do well. So that will be a whole-group thing that I do in a more typical teaching style. But then there’s going to be other pieces that they totally own.

This definitely doesn’t sound like less work for the teacher.

SNB: No, but it can be much more rewarding and intellectually stimulating work. To do this well, you’ve got to know your curriculum, know your standards, know the kinds of test items you can expect. You’ve got to be familiar with the way your state does their assessment. When I was leading a small school in Georgia where we used this teaching approach, our students had to perform well on the state accountability tests if we wanted to remain open. So we would devote three weeks or so before the test to look at what we were learning through more of a multiple-choice, facts-based kind of lens. Our kids did great on the tests and then we got back to the kind of teaching and learning we all loved.

What if you’re teaching history or literature? Skateboarding is not going to be a workable umbrella there.

SNB: In some instances, passion-based learning is letting kids come up with something they’re really passionate about that can be related to the curriculum, and allowing them to work within that space. And in other instances, passion-based learning is finding out what you, the student, are passionate about within a circumscribed field – within the specific elements of the curriculum that the state says we have to teach in such-and-such an area.

So when teachers say to me, “oh, you don’t understand high-stakes testing – I just can’t do that right now,” I say, oh yes you can. It’s not about ignoring the testing, the core curriculum or the standards. It’s about allowing them to pick an entry point they’re really excited about.

If I’m teaching the Civil War, there might be some boys who are really into the gore of people getting wounded and the kind of medicine that was practiced on the battlefield and in the field hospitals – what happened with amputations and how they did that and so forth. That’s not necessarily something that’s going to be tested, but they can address the larger learning goals as they learn how their passionate interest relates to everything else going on in the Civil War. It’s also interdisciplinary: there’s the language use, the construction of sentences, the persuasive argument, the problem solving, the way they’re going to share what they learn with the rest of the group and what they themselves are going to learn from other kids’ sharing their particular interests. It’s all workable to meet curriculum objectives.

If you were going to create an assessment system that really honored passion-based learning, what would it look like?

SNB: It has to be performance-based and competency based. As teachers we have to realize that the outcome — the product that’s the outcome of whatever we set up to be the objective of the learning – IS the assessment. Instead of relying only on multiple-choice and paper & pencil tests, where everybody has to fit into the same box, we need to be able to do things like create portfolios. The digital and web-based tools that we have today make electronic portfolios very easy. We can take different artifacts and things that kids are doing that prove mastery of the objectives and build a portfolio that displays and documents their learning.

Often what I do is I bring students into that process. I say “OK, this is the objective we’re trying to accomplish. What is the project that you’re going to choose that will show me at the end of our unit whether you have mastered it.” Even in elementary school we can get them to start thinking about that – what they could do, what they could produce that’s going to show me they learned the material and concepts they needed to learn.

Once the teacher matches the objective to the outcome, artifact or product that you’re going to get – once you say “OK, this is what’s going to prove mastery, this is how I can assess it” – then teachers really have some concrete pieces of work that they can analyze, work that students have helped select with the level of teacher guidance that’s appropriate for the age group and tasks involved.

I’m all for data-driven teaching and learning. Data can be hugely helpful to us, but it has to be data that tells us about the breadth and depth of what students are learning, in the context of what we want them to learn. In my example, I can decide I’m going to look at growth over time, analyze their electronic portfolios, and find the data I need to tell me whether and to what degree my strategies are working and what I need to do next.

In your work with educators, you sometimes use your own story to make the argument for passion-driven learning. You moved around a lot as a child and were sometimes homeless. You attended many different schools and you’ve said that your talents and abilities were rarely recognized. Given your ultimate successes, what messages do you draw from that?

SNB: I think the people who created the curriculum of the schools I attended probably in their own minds were thinking, ok, the first grader needs to have this, and the second grader needs to have this, and the third grader needs to have this. And it needs to be very content-driven, very sequential, and it needs to be very linear. I’m sure they felt that was the right thing to do, but I went through dozens of schools and systems and I didn’t get much of that linear curriculum. Yet somehow I still turned out educated.

Learning and school doesn’t have to be lock-step. We think it does, but the content isn’t what matters most – what matters is helping kids know how to learn. If we create that self-directedness, if we create that ability to learn, if we create problem solving skills, if we give them the opportunities to become critical thinkers – we don’t have to do memorization of facts. If we teach students to read, if we teach them to calculate, if we teach them to use today’s technologies safely and effectively and then get out of the way and let them pursue things that are very interesting to them, and let them be producers of knowledge themselves, we’re going to get the product we want at the end.

In education, we are so entrenched in our belief that it’s about the content and the curriculum that we have missed the whole point. It’s really about how they learn and helping them to be good at learning – to be Learners with a capital L. And my message to all the educators I work with is that we have to be Learners ourselves first — we have to own it and understand what it means to be a Learner ourselves first before we can give it away.

You’ve said that educators are always focused on their students’ futures, when they ought to pay more attention to the present.

SNB: What I would like to see is this: instead of determining what kids need to know and when they need to know it, what if we decided, kind of like John Dewey did, that who they are RIGHT NOW matters, not just who they’re going to become. Not constantly thinking, ok, we’ve got to teach you this now because in middle school you’re going to need it. And in middle school saying, well, in high school you’re going to have to have these skills, so this is what we have to study – not what you’re interested in right now. And then in high school saying, well you know, when you get into college, you gotta have this. And then in college or work prep saying, well, when you start competing for jobs, this is going to be important. And then once you have the job, well, we’ve got to prepare you for promotion.

When we take this approach to learning, our motivation is never what interests and excites us right now but always some abstract need in the future. No wonder so many of us get bored in school and can’t understand why the content in front of us matters.

I think Dewey said that at least half of what you’re doing with students in school needs to be relevant to who they are as a person now. If we look at kids and we say, ok, what can we do right now that you find interesting – that’s meaningful to you today – and then we provide tons of great fertilization around that interest – we put a book in their hands and say read this, this is amazing, and then let’s talk about it – and then after they read it, they tell the story back, so in the first grade or second grade, they’re just kind of telling the story back and gaining a sense of language, they’re beginning to own words from the author’s perspective, and as they move along and they get in upper elementary and middle and high school, we point them to great literature, highly engaging and important books that match their interests, and they write papers about them or they blog about them, or they share their excitement through video and in their social networks — now that’s powerful learning.

That’s the vision I see. It’s not saying you’ve got to learn this and only this – instead we’re saying look at these rich, wonderful, incredible, beautiful pieces (of content). And we give them very interesting problems to look at in sociology, or geography, or mathematics. We have them look at things from a critical thinking perspective, or a social justice perspective. We teach content and meet standards, but it’s all relevant to what they are interested in at their particular stage of development – who they are as an individual. What if we listened to their ideas about the things that excite them now?

Dave Matthews has a song that says “the future is no place for our better days.” What if we concentrate on making their better days come alive right now in our classrooms? What if we make the things we want them to learn extremely important right now instead of serving up some prefabricated curriculum that we’ve masticated and are now putting in their mouths at some kind of level WE think they can digest? That’s what learning with passion means to me.

Any final thoughts?

SNB: When your teaching practice is passion-based, you’re working very hard as you backward-design lessons and assessments and personalize the educational experience for each child in your care. You’re doing what you really need to do to make sure nobody falls through the cracks.

Most of all, you’re helping them empower themselves as learners for a lifetime. You won’t one day sit back and look over your career and think, oh my gosh, there were all those kids that I didn’t prepare for this world that awaited them, and they’re not successful because I didn’t do what I needed to do.

About the author
John Norton is Coordinator of Content and Capacity Building with Powerful Learning Practice and Editorial Director of Powerful Learning Press. He's also editor of the PLP group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution. Learn more about John here.