Passion-based learning? How about knowledge-based learning?

     In my Twitter feed, I just saw a tweet about an education seminar called “Passion-Based Learning”. So this is where we’re going in education? It seems likely. For years I attended seminar after seminar on student-centred learning. This seems like a natural evolution. It’s a bad idea.

     I get it.

     Because we care about our students, we want them pursue their passions in the hope that in doing so, they will feel more inspired to learn, and will happily pursue the skills and knowledge to take their passion to the next level. If a kid is interested in… say… go-carts, he’ll want to build one, and in doing so, he’ll be more keen to learn about physics: vectors, acceleration, friction associated with go-carts. At least, that’s the thinking.
     So in this model, we ask kids what they’re interested in. Then we tell them to decide on a project they’d like to do, that will satisfy their interest, and pull them into the world of knowledge. We’re looking for a hook to engage kids. And I guess this effort is fine except for a couple problems.

      The first is that kids’ passions are fickle, and there’s no evidence that their passion translates into better learning of tangential concepts. In other words, the kid who likes building go-carts just may not be terribly interested in friction coefficients, no matter how the concept is presented. Nor will his passion spill over at all into an important topic like English.

      The second is that focussing only on our passions creates the illusion that our passions are important. They’re not. At least, they’re not as important as the overall society. We should not suggest to students that school, which is their first experience with society at large, should bend to fit their passions.

     Students need to learn the importance of self-discipline and self-sacrifice. A kid needs to forgo his passion to do his homework. We need to make sure that students are aware that their job is to somehow become useful contributors in society, and that just because they’re interested in something doesn’t mean it’s a priority.

     Passion should not be the basis for learning; knowledge should. We hope that knowledge will speak to students’ passion. In fact, we know that the better we equip a child with knowledge, the more we open the door to many interests (passions if you will).
     Good teachers have always tried to hook students into learning a new concept by first accessing prior knowledge, and even (Yes!) prior passions. But to allow students to choose what they learn, and to have to try to somehow sneak knowledge in according to what the students’ passions impel them to choose to study is backward.

 

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