When principal Matt Renwick mentioned “Minecraft” in a flyer about an afterschool computer club, 30 percent of his elementary students showed up. In his first reflection on this passion-based learning experience, Renwick considered his kids’ high engagement through Dan Pink’s three lenses: autonomy, purpose & mastery. Here he digs deeper into what educators mean when they talk about passion – and where frustration comes in. (Here are the links to this eight-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7 and Part 8.)

Passion-learning-sqAfter our first day, it was apparent that Minecraft was the main draw to our after-school enrichment club. But this digital tool wasn’t the only game in town. Several students expressed interest in drawing; others wanted to know how to share their writing online.

With these interests in mind, we ordered copies of Minecraft Pocket Edition for our 20 iPads. For the other 30 iMacs, several activities were suggested, such as learning sign language via YouTube and trying out Build with Chrome, a possible Minecraft alternative.

One thing I’m learning quickly: access alone is not enough. When handed technology with little guidance or supervision, students tend to use it at the lowest common denominator, cognitively speaking. Maybe this tendency was related to the fact that my observations took place in school, where expected outcomes are, well, expected. Would posting goals that connected their interests and relevant projects to specific digital tools be the answer to unleashing the students’ passions?

They were run-walking

Reflecting on our second day, I guess the “unleashing” depends on your point of view. From our teacher perspective, the students were not lacking in passion.

Picking out an iPad

Picking out an iPad

When we released half the students to the lab after a brief discussion of our routines, they did that “run-walk” you usually see reserved for recess — fearing there wouldn’t be enough computers. The other half eagerly waited for their table to be dismissed so they could select an iPad.

In an 2013 article here at the Voices blog, “The Science of Passion-Based Learning,” Peter Skillen describes passion as more than just engagement and motivation. He sees passion as an emotion that, when dovetailed with meaningful work, can lead to deep and conceptual levels of learning. “There are cognitive processes in the brain that are “turned on” by emotion,” he wrote, “be that passion, anger, anxiety or other emotions.”

Those possibilities were exciting to us. Tapping into what students were passionate about, like Minecraft and iPads, could lead to learning that might be unattainable in a more traditional school environment. And the research he cited to support this concept helped validate our efforts. As Peter describes:

“When students are passionately engaged in their learning – when they are mesmerized by their learning environment or activities – there are myriad responses in their brains making connections and building schema that simply would not occur without that passion or emotion.”

Passion meets frustration

The brain phenomenon Peter described does not necessarily guarantee a smooth start to the journey, however. For some of our students, their passion quickly turned to frustration.

Who's got the TNT?

Who’s got the TNT?

Google Chrome’s update wasn’t working properly — and Build with Chrome along with it. Students who previously weren’t interested in Minecraft but now saw their friends immersed in the game, all of a sudden wanted to get in on the fun. Among those already playing Minecraft, some students were not being as “cooperative” as they could have been, planting TNT (the boys) in shelters other players (the girls) were trying to build.

Side stepping our normal roles as teachers, my colleague and I tried to guide our frustrated learners to solve these problems themselves.

• For the students who were experiencing Chrome difficulties, they were encouraged to make sure every computer had the same issues (they didn’t; some worked). One student did find a computer that was working properly and start playing Build with Chrome.

• Instead of exerting our teacher/adult authority to “solve” the Minecraft cooperation problem, we invited the students involved to work it out among themselves, with our mild guidance. A couple of students used two of the iPads to have a Skype chat, sitting just 10 feet away from each other. Rather than being the experts in the room, we attempted to build expertise among the learners.

Mr. Renwick’s wild ride

Short-distance skyping

Short-distance skyping

So our second day of Computer Club was something of a wild up-and-down ride. There seems to be a fine line between passion and frustration. But if we are experiencing emotions in our endeavors, that should say something about the learning climate we are participating in. It means we care deeply about the process and the outcomes.

These activities that we are engaged in matter to the students. That makes the activities important. If we can harness these passions toward building our collective intelligence, I cannot imagine a more powerful learning experience.

More to come!

About the author
Matt Renwick is a 16-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary school leader in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and also writes for EdTech magazine and other publications. His book Digital Student Porfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Improvement was published in July.