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Curiosity and Passion Drive Learning

I hate exercising.  Well, hate is such a strong word…I really don’t like exercising.  The kind where you go to the gym, take a class, push-ups, sit-ups etc.  It’s not that I don’t exercise at all.  I guess it goes in spurts for whatever is piquing my interest at that moment, but it never lasts.  I’m just not that into it.  In fact, if I didn’t have to do it, I probably wouldn’t exercise at all.

I should mention though that I absolutely love being outside.  Any sort of outside activity.  Preferably in the 75 degree range, but sign me up for any outdoor adventure.  I wouldn’t really have considered climbing mountains as exercise for example, but anyone on our climb up Mt. Bierstadt in Colorado last summer will tell you it was a herculean effort – well as least for some of us.

So when we found our new house, on 2.2 acres with a view of the Chattahoochee River, I immediately fell in love.  Most of the property is actually wooded forest and just lovely.  Deer walk through in the morning and though I’m pretty sure there are some poisonous snakes down there somewhere, it really is just heaven. This past weekend I decided to tackle a huge area of ivy that had become weed infested.  Pulling weeds in and of itself is not exactly fun but I was thrilled just to be outside and in nature.  In fact, it was a feels-like of 35 degrees but with my mountain climbing outfit on, I was completely content stomping through the bushes.  I spent hours, clipping, digging, and hauling trash cans overflowing with weeds and twigs up the 18% grade hill to the dumpster.  I found magnificent rock walls that had been hidden by ivy from years of neglect.  I unearthed clay pots that used to hold beautiful flowers.  I learned how to sharpen the large clippers because some of the dead branches were just too big for the small shears.  Eventually, I found a good stopping point near a couple of trees.  By now, I was in serious need of a snack and a hot shower. As I was cleaning up and catching my breath, I thought that this was so much better than going to the gym.  I used all of the same muscles that I would have used working out, burning some serious calories.  And my low-intensity cardio workout definitely got my heart pumping!  The best part was I couldn’t wait to start the next part of the garden tomorrow after work!  I’d never said that at the gym before.  In fact, I’m sure I had used every excuse in the book why I didn’t need to go back to the gym the next day.  I was doing all of the same exercises I would have done on the weight machines or in a class and learning new things at the same time, but because it was under the umbrella of something I was passionate about, I was more interested in continuing, working harder and longer than I normally would have done.

This same idea applies to students and the work we ask them to do at school.  How might we pair the learning outcomes and skills with projects that the students are actually passionate about? The difference in learning and student engagement when this happens

is remarkable.  At Mount Vernon, we ask how school can look more like real-life. As an adult, if we were in a job that we hated, we’d quit.  As a student, you can’t quit the project that the teacher has chosen for you. You just plod along, never really engaging in the learning because it just doesn’t interest you that much. With inquiry-based learning, student start by asking questions and finding their passions.  How might all of the required learning in school fall under each student’s passion? How does that really work in a school day with a room full of kids when there are all sorts of things that we have to get done and learning outcomes to check off?  If every student had different passions and interests, how could teachers really keep a handle on what’s going on each day?  In general, inquiry-based learning can be messy and unpredictable.  Teachers need to be able to let go of the control and trust the method.  When students are doing something that they are passionate about, they will be more engaged, work harder and longer and retain the information better because the learning and skills are part of bigger context that matters to them.

If I were a student today in an English class, I’d hope the persuasive essay that I was learning to write could be to the local city official about prohibiting the use of harmful pesticides.  In my math class, I hope that when learning about converting units of measurement, I could figure out how many wheelbarrow loads of potting soil I could get from a one ton delivery from the local gardening store since I’m replanting the side hill.  If I was learning about even and odd, I hope I could find examples by looking at the plants and bugs in the front flower beds.  In history class, I hope I could choose to research the indigenous people from Japan – the Japanese Maple in the front yard is one of my favorite trees.

In literature, I’d want to do my character study on Mary Lennox from the novel “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I just uncovered a hidden rock wall in the ivy bed which totally reminded me of the hidden door in the story.  In science, during the unit on invertebrates, I wonder if I could research an interesting flat head worm I found in the garden.  Apparently it’s a dangerous predator that eats regular earthworms and with all of my new plantings, I really need as many earthworms to fertilize the soil as possible.  If this was the work I could choose each day as a student, I’d be so much more engaged in my learning.  How might we give the students at our schools the same choices?  If you are already an inquiry-based school, how much of the day is really student driven?  Or are there only a few PBL units a couple of times a year and that’s it?  I would argue that’s not enough.

So here’s a challenge for you…take out your lesson plans for the next week and pick one topic that every lesson and activity needs to fall under.  Can you do it?  Of course you can, but it might take some stretching on your part.  Now pick another totally different topic.  See?  It’s totally possible.  You pick the what.  Let the students pick the how.  Curiosity and passion really do drive learning.  I think you’ll be amazed with the results.

By Alex Blumencranz

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