Interests and Passions

I have spent some of my time this week listening to some wonderful people talk about interest-driven education in the context of connected learning, and project based learning.  I'm eager to learn more about interest based learning, child centered curriculum, student driven projects...whatever you call them in your corner of the world.



A portion of the conversation above, on connectedlearning.tv, was focused on two words that some might use interchangeably:  interest and passion.  When we think about student engagement, many of us think about them following their interests and passions.  But what counts as an interest?  As a passion?  Are they different, and does it matter what student interest is?  Should we let students follow any interest, or are there ones that are "better" than others?

notes from the webinar

My personal experience with interest driven learning has been in the context of the Project Approach and guided inquiry.  When beginning to work within both of these ideas, I wanted someone to show me exactly what to do.  How do you find out what children want to do?  Then what do you do?  And THEN what?  

Looking back at posts about projects here on the blog, I know we could have gone deeper.  Even look back at Katz and Chard's words, I'm struck by how they describe a project:

"A project is an in-depth study of a particular topic that one or more children undertake.  It consists of exploring a topic or theme such as 'going to the hospital,' 'building a house,' or 'the bus that brings us to school.'  Work on a project should extend over a period of days or weeks, depending on the children's ages and the nature of the topic." (1989, p. 2)

Although a project gets a general description from Katz and Chard, that open description is followed by  a word that many preschool teachers can only see one meaning for:  THEME.  One of my greatest confusions upon graduating with a Bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education was "theme".  Very little change will happen if we keep choosing topics (or letting children choose them) and then planning a few weeks' worth of curriculum around that topic for them.  Truly interest-driven education looks quite different from the project approach.  I picture interest-driven education as initiated and planned by students, while facilitated by teachers.  Reflecting on my project-based work with children in the past, it does not quite fit the bill of Katz and Chard's view.

Over at Edutopia, Project Based Learning is defined as "a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges.  With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they're studying."  Rather than set steps and phases, as Katz and Chard suggest, PBL is an approach to teaching.  There is also a focus on connecting to students on a personal level, suggested by "real-world learning and problems".  The definition of PBL encourages teachers to be active, know their students, and connect school to the world outside, whereas the project approach provides yet another package for Early Childhood Educators.

The conversation within the webinar on interests and passions had me thinking:  deciding on a ropic or a theme is quite different than starting with interests.  There is more playfulness and exploration implied with "interest" than with "topic" or "theme". A child playing with blocks day after day might have an interest in blocks, yes, but he might be interested in balance, a specific building he has seen, construction...or perhaps he is using a familiar material to make him feel comfortable before he tries out new materials.  We really need to watch and truly know our students before we can label anything as an interest or a passion.




The second webinar was with PBL guru Suzie Boss, chatting about her new book, Bringing Innovation to School.  Boss spoke about project based learning, social and emotional development, design thinking, and (of course) innovation.  I felt a much more positive connection to PBL through her words.  She writes about PBL for Edutopia, sharing cases of stellar ideas in education and PBL.  There is something about the way that Boss talks about PBL that is both less guided and "strict" than Katz and Chard; yet at the same time, there is more clarity.  Perhaps it is because she advocates that PBL is whole-child teaching and learning, rather than a piece of the puzzle.  She implies the importance of knowing students well in a piece for the New York Times Learning Blog:

By sparking students' interest in real issues that affect them and their peers around the world, you will give them cause to think more critically about what they are learning.  Better yet, you may give them a head start on becoming tomorrow's problem-solvers."

It is unlikely that we will know what real issues are affecting our students, and which real issues will engage them, unless we have laid the groundwork for getting to know them as people with curiosities, interests, and passions.  Beginning by knowing our students; understanding their interests, identifying problems, and creating innovative solutions is not only a more useful way to frame PBL, it is a less scary way.  It reminds me of the way I hope my students will approach issues in their everyday lives.  It also strikes me as adaptable:  it embeds a process and skills that can be used in a range of situations.

I know that I need to think of PBL as an approach to learning rather than as a set of steps.  An approach that includes whole child development and real-world learning.   Although I am shifting my teaching focus from the preschool set to elementary school, I find my thoughts looping back to the schools of Reggio Emilia, which will continue to inspire me, no matter what context I'm working in. Carlina Rinaldi shares thoughts on the unpredictable nature of projects:

"The word 'project' evokes the idea of a dynamic process, an itinerary.  It is sensitive to the rhythms of communication and incorporates the significance and timing of children's investigation and research.  The duration of a project can thus be short, medium or long, continuous or discontinuous, with pauses, suspensions, and restarts.  The statement of a hypothesis on how the project might proceed is valid only to the extent that it is seen precisely as a hypothesis and not as a 'must', as one of a thousand hypotheses on the direction that might be taken.  Above all, making hypotheses is a way to increase the expectations, excitement and the possibilities for being and interacting, for welcoming the unexpected as a fundamental resource.  A greater ability to predict will help us know how to better observe and interpret that which happens among children.  In this sense, the links with the concepts of observation, documentation, and re-cognition become strong and meaningful."  (2006, pp. 132-133).

I picture children following their questions and interests when I read that passage.  I picture teachers as facilitators, encouraging children to solve problems in innovative ways, expressing themselves through different media to delve deeper.

I hope to encourage children's use of multiple languages as they innovate to solve problems that interest them.  In the connected learning webinar, Mimi Ito shared about a variety of projects and addressed the common concern of what makes a "good" project.  She shared about everything from One Direction fan writing to interests in Anime - interests that she has seen students pursue in depth.  It is easy for us to make judgements about what we think a good project or a valid interest is, and I have struggled with putting those thoughts aside, and will continue to.  But, if it can be researched, it can be a project.  The first thing that we document as a potential interest might not be the project - if that was the case, preschool teachers everywhere would be assisting girls as they embark on kitten projects.  Let's think about the best ways we can get to know our students when we begin learning together, and then move on from there.



I talked about:

Katz, L. and Chard, S.  (2000).  Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach.  Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Rinaldi, C. (2006).  The construction of the educational project.  In Rinaldi, C., In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia:  Listening, researching, and learning (pp. 121-136).  London: Routledge.