Why Passion Projects should be mandatory, but aren’t

“Courage Within” by Nathan Sawaya

Today was the first day of school. Over the previous week or so, teachers have been asking me if Passion Projects are mandatory this year – will everyone be doing them? This question causes me a lot of confusion because I know that the answer is “no” but should be “yes”. It goes against my principles to make something like Passion Projects mandatory, yet I want – more than anything – all of our students to get the opportunities that Passion Projects provide. I guess I want all of our teachers to want to provide them though… not be told they have to. The bottom line is, if they need to be told they have to do Passion Projects with their students then clearly they’re not seeing the power or the purpose behind them. Helping them see those things is, therefore, where my job comes in.

So, why should students be given time – on a regular basis – to work on things that are intrinsically interesting to them? Many, many reasons… but here are the ones that I feel are most persuasive:

  • They deserve the chance to explore what genuinely interests them or what they are naturally talented at. This may, in many cases, be the only chance they get to do so. As Sir Ken Robinson says, in The Element, “too many graduate or leave early, unsure of their real talents and equally unsure of what direction to take next. Too many feel that what they’re good at isn’t valued by schools. Too many think that they’re not good at anything.”
  • Passion Projects give students the time and space to learn how to inquire. Even in many inquiry-based schools, the curriculum is pre-determined and students are generating questions and research around topics that are teacher-created and controlled. The openness of Passion Projects expects students to determine their own projects, their own goals and their own next steps. It is this openness that is most challenging for teachers as so many students simply are unable to do those things – very often because they have not acquired them year-after-year in school!
  • The habits, skills and behaviours that students take on and develop through the challenges of Passion Projects set them up to be more powerful learners in all other aspects of their life at school. When they see how learning applies to those parts of their life that they never associated with school before, then the act of learning loses its stigma. The distinction between learning and fun begins to blur… before eventually vanishing completely.
  • Passion Projects actually set teachers up to learn from their students… not only about the things that the students choose to work on, but also about learning itself. We all become quite caged by own experiences – particular teaching practices – and we need, in some cases quite desperately, to be set free from them. Allowing our students regular time to develop their own projects means we can’t apply our old methods, we can’t see learning in the same, boxed in way that we have previously. We have to stand back, take it all in and rethink before our role in this situation becomes clear. As Loris Malaguzzi says:

    “Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.”

So… Passion Projects. It may feel a little risky or scary to you. But the experiences of those of us who have been doing it a while show us that it quickly becomes everyone’s favourite time, that the learning taking place quickly supersedes any learning that was happening before and that students begin to amaze themselves and those around them in ways that previously may not have been possible.

Give it a go.

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5 comments

  1. dfinesto

    Because of you Sam, I have become passionate about Passion Projects. Due to time restraints in class, my dilemma has been to either not do them at all, or to allow kids to do these as a home learning task for a few weeks- no other home learning to be given. This has been exciting for most students but not nearly as marvellous as it could be for all students. I also don’t get to step back, observe and allow the precious time and space they need during class. Your thoughts??
    Desiree

    • sherrattsam

      My thoughts are to scrap something else in order to create space for it. Start with a regular time every two weeks… then, once the students are showing you that they take it seriously and are doing interesting things, extend it to once per week.

  2. Stephanie

    Sam
    I’ve been reflecting on your post a lot and I think that what resonates with me is your commitment to not push ideas through but rather engage people to want to do them for themselves. How many administrative initiatives fail because time isn’t spent exploring the ‘why’ before the do?

    Stephanie

  3. dfinesto

    We’re in it Sam! Kids are SO excited. I shared your post with my Year 5 students. They were wrapped that a ‘ famous educator’ ( you) responded to their teacher’s email. 😜
    We have discussed the ‘time issue’ and the kids have solved all the negatives I offered. Thank you. You are an inspiration.

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